Marijuana

Weeded Out: How the U of A Fired Pot Researcher Sue Sisley After a State Senator Complained

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How Sisley ended up on the radar of one of the state's most powerful Republicans, Andy Biggs, a man who helps shape how state universities are funded each year, can be traced back to a United Nations treaty from 53 years ago.

Then, the U.N. published a document called the "Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961," signed by various member nations, including the United States, and amended slightly in 1972. The treaty asks nations to prohibit use and possession of cannabis and other drugs and to seize and destroy plants "except for small quantities required . . . for scientific or research purposes."

Member nations that want to grow cannabis for research can do so by appointing agencies to oversee the cultivation process, says the treaty.

Under a longstanding Health and Human Services policy based on the treaty, the FDA and the U.S. Public Health Service, overseen by HHS, must approve any scientific research regarding whole-plant marijuana. Once approved, the HHS can authorize the National Institute of Drug Abuse to arrange for marijuana to be harvested for research from a 12-acre farm run by the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi. Projects also have to be registered with the Drug Enforcement Agency and conducted at a designated secure location.

With all of these bureaucracies involved, and a virtual monopoly on marijuana available for research, would-be research projects like Sisley's have been stifled severely. The restrictions, marijuana advocates say, have created a catch-22 in which marijuana remains in the federal code as a Schedule 1 drug, banned even for medical purposes, while studies that might prove medical benefits remain too few to convince prohibitionists in Congress that there's good reason to support changes in the law.

After entering the medical profession as a psychiatrist, Sisley treated many PTSD patients. Some of them confided in her that they used marijuana to self-medicate. At first, Sisley actively discouraged her patients -- often veterans who had been in war -- from smoking pot. Yet so many told her that it relieved their symptoms, even when other drugs or treatments failed, she began to come around to the idea that the benefit was real. "It was better than anything I'd been able to offer them," she says.

With as many as 22 veterans per day committing suicide, according to U.S. Veterans Affairs, Sisley came to view the lack of access to legal marijuana for veterans as a type of "generational genocide."

While researching the subject, she stumbled onto MAPS. Founded in 1986 by Rick Doblin, a Boston resident with a doctorate in public policy from Harvard University, the nonprofit organization's first focus was on MDMA, known as ecstasy, and its use in psychological treatment. With a staff of scientists and lobbyists to help with the tricky legal aspects, MAPS also conducted research with LSD and psilocybin, the active ingredient in "magic" mushrooms. For the past 22 years, the nonprofit group's tried to squeeze the federal government to obtain marijuana legally for a research project.

With her strong interest in testing pot's effectiveness on PTSD, plus her location in Arizona, which was about to legalize the drug for medical purposes, Sisley and MAPS teamed up to create the 61-page scientific protocol that serves as a template for the research.

The plan is to study 50 veterans with PTSD who haven't responded well to other treatment. They would smoke and vaporize up to two joints' worth of marijuana every day, administered at first in clinical settings following rigorous instructions on using the pot, followed by a month of video-recorded, self-administered home use.

Randomly, the veterans would receive several strains of marijuana with differing levels of THC (the plant's psychoactive chemical ingredient), including one placebo strain with no THC, a fairly strong strain with 12 percent THC, and a strain with 6 percent THC and 6 percent of another chemical in marijuana plants believed to be helpful, called cannabidiol. The veterans would be monitored using the home videos, and there would be a strict rule about returning unused marijuana, a mandatory two-week cessation period, 12 months of follow-up, and frequent drug screenings. In the second stage of the study, assuming positive benefits are revealed in the first, researchers would skip the placebo and measure the health effects of three strains with THC and cannabidiol. MAPS submitted an early version of the protocol to the FDA and, on November 17, five days after Arizona's Prop 203 was declared victorious, received initial approval to continue the work.

While Sisley and MAPS worked to get their project approved by federal authorities, a few key Republicans tried to hamstring the new voter-approved medical-marijuana law. GOP state Representative John Kavanagh introduced a short-lived bill to put the law back on the ballot, even though polls showed more Arizonans than ever supported it. Kimberly Yee, once a cabinet member for education under former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, sponsored a couple of bills that went nowhere, including one that would've allowed police to destroy any marijuana they seized, even if it was confiscated illegally from card-holding patients, and another that would've permitted the DHS to revoke -- immediately, and without appeal -- the business license of any dispensary that sold marijuana in packaging that might appeal to children.

In April 2012, Governor Jan Brewer signed a bill sponsored by former Republican state Representative Amanda Reeve that banned medical-marijuana patients from using or possessing the plant on college campuses. Reeve, now a Phoenix lawyer, says the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys' Advisory Council originally asked for the law. She says it was necessary to ensure compliance with the federal ban on marijuana and to make sure that two-thirds of a billion dollars of federal funds for state colleges and universities wasn't put in jeopardy.

U of A officials didn't ask for an exemption for research at the time -- though Sisley was worried how the bill would affect the PTSD study, Reeve recalls.

The law, which had bipartisan support, chilled plans for research like Sisley's to occur on any higher-education campus in Arizona.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.