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

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Sue Sisley realized that she needed to lobby even harder if her project ever was to get off the ground. She filed paperwork to form a political-action committee called Americans for Scientific Freedom and sought lawmakers and supporters friendly to her research ideas.

Then, in early 2013, Kimberly Yee sponsored legislation pushed by the U of A and the Maricopa County Medical Society for a research exemption to the campus ban. The successful effort made it seem like the U of A was fully prepared to host a marijuana study on one of its several campuses -- and that Yee might have mellowed on the marijuana issue, for research purposes anyway.

One aspect of the new legislation that assauged Yee was that that no state funds would be used for pot research, she was told by proponents of the bill.

"It wasn't me who promised her," Sisley says, blaming it on U of A liaison Tim Bee (a former Republican state Senate president) and former Flagstaff Mayor Sara Presler, then-head of the county medical society. "[The society] made a huge mistake in hiring [Presler] as our executive director . . . She made all kinds of unauthorized statements."

When asked about Sisley's allegation that she flubbed the negotiations on the bill, Presler would only comment that she quit her job at the society last November 1.

Governor Brewer signed the bill into law. But Sisley wasn't betting on detente. Last December, she donated $5,000 to her PAC, hoping to use it to support political candidates who supported her research and to target those who didn't. No one she approached wanted to accept donations for the pot-oriented PAC, she says. Bee also complained to her about the PAC, she says. In February, Sisley refunded the five grand back to herself and abandoned the effort.

About the same time, Republican state Representative Ethan Orr of Tucson introduced a bill that would've helped Sisley tremendously. It authorized the state's medical-marijuana fund ($9 million and growing), collected by the state DHS in patient and dispensary certification fees, to be used for marijuana research.

"I wasn't funding Sue Sisley. I was funding research," Orr says, adding that dispensary-industry representatives first approached him about sponsoring the bill. "We have a fund building up, but we're unable to use it."

The 2010 Medical Marijuana Act calls for the state DHS director to administer the fund. Will Humble, director since the law passed, won't authorize spending directly on marijuana research, even though he's paid the U of A $200,000 from the fund to cull results from other studies on medical pot. The fund's also been used to pay legal expenses for lawsuits the DHS has had to fight over medical marijuana, and another $1.2 million went to a program to catch recommendation-writing doctors who don't follow state rules. "If I were to spend the fund on primary research, there's a decent chance I'd get sued for doing so," Humble says.

In addition to biomedical research, Orr's bill would've allowed the fund to be used for programs to discourage marijuana use among young people and among the population in general. Democrats and Republicans jumped on the bill, and it passed the House 52-5, meeting the necessary two-thirds majority for changes to the voter-approved marijuana law, per 1995's Voter Protection Act.

After the bill moved to the State Senate, Senator Biggs, a Republican marijuana prohibitionist from Gilbert, assigned it on March 11 to the Senate Education Committee, chaired by Yee. She sat on it, refusing to bring it up for vote by other committee members until a March 20 expiration date.

"This was about a promise," Yee states, referring to the negotiations over the 2013 campus-exemption law. "They said they would not come back for any state dollars." Yee had another motive: She and other prohibitionists would prefer to use state money for anti-marijuana propaganda that counters a plan by the Marijuana Policy Project to put a legalization measure on the ballot in Arizona in 2016.

As Yee blocked the Senate from considering whether to fund research like Sisley's, the U.S. government announced on March 14 that MAPS and Sisley could obtain federally legal marijuana for their project.

Suddenly, Yee looked like Enemy No. 1 to marijuana advocates here and nationally.

Veterans, including some of Sisley's patients and contacts, began talking about her recall. Meanwhile, Biggs, apparently also unhappy with Orr's bill, tried to slip an amendment into a budget bill in late March to exclude any state money for marijuana research. Sisley distributed a photo of the amendment to supporters, who helped persuade Biggs to ditch it. A vet's group that included some of Sisley's would-be patients lit up Yee's phones for a few days -- Sisley says she had nothing to do with the blitz.

Veterans and cannabis advocates prepared for an April 2 rally targeting Yee at the Capitol. MAPS published a press release a day ahead of the event to help drum up support, listing Sisley as a publicity contact and saying she was "frustrated" with Yee. Sisley says she never wanted to be a contact for the recall; MAPS later removed her name from an online version of the release.

On the day of the rally, Sisley joined several dozen marijuana supporters in the state Capitol's Wesley Bolin Plaza but didn't make a speech or hold a sign.

Demonstrators chanted, "Hey, ho, Yee must go!" Some held signs saying "Shame on Yee!" and "Allow PTSD Research."

As news broke of the rally and a Yee recall (often mentioning Sisley prominently), Biggs took notice. He phoned the U of A's legislative liaison, former Tucson lawmaker Bee, to complain specifically that "Dr. Sisley seemed to be lobbying too aggressively and inappropriately," Biggs told the New York Times for an August 9 article. "Tim said he would call back after he found out more . . . And then he did and told me, 'This will not be a problem going forward.'"

On April 4, Sisley says, U of A executive Skip Garcia asked her to pull together a report detailing all her political activity. Garcia told her that Biggs had complained and that U of A President Ann Weaver Hart was concerned, she says.

The recall movement fizzled a couple of weeks later after Yee and her lawyer negotiated with the angry vets and agreed not to hold back medical research. Two months later, the university told Sisley that her services no longer were required.

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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.