Marijuana

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

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In the aftermath of the late-June news that Sisley was fired, U of A officials refuted her claims of political retribution.

"I can say unequivocally we were under no pressure to terminate any employee," says university spokesman Chris Sigurdson.

That said, when the New York Times article was published, it was clear that the university did receive political pressure -- from Biggs. He'd complained about a single employee and, therefore, must have expected some kind of action. Biggs declined to comment for this article.

Mike Philipsen, state Senate majority spokesman, says Times writer Serge Kovaleski "skipped over some context" that would have made Bee's reply to Biggs sound less ominous.

"Mr. Bee and the university wanted to make sure we understood that their employees were made aware of policies and procedures established by the Board of Regents and the U of A concerning lobbying," Philipsen wrote in an e-mail. Without this context, "the conversations could be interpreted as something heavy-handed, when they weren't." Bee refused to confirm or deny whether Biggs had quoted him accurately. Asked again about his conversation with Biggs about Sisley at a conference in Phoenix last month, Bee fled from a New Times reporter.

Neither Garcia's office nor the U of A's public-relations department would acknowledge that Garcia called to chat with Sisley on April 4. However, at New Times' request, Sisley went through her personal phone records after recalling that Garcia's assistant, Rebecca Nunn, had called her cell number on April 4 to ask if she had time to talk to Garcia -- the records confirmed the phone call at 4:51 p.m. After Nunn's call, she talked to Garcia on her office phone to save her cell minutes, she says.

Sigurdson wouldn't talk directly about Sisley, but he says the university may receive general complaints about the lobbying of employees from time to time and "we ask [the employees] not to talk to legislators on behalf of the University of Arizona." No one's alleging that Sisley did that, though.

Sigurdson points out that the U of A "championed" the 2013 law that exempts research from the ban on medical marijuana on college campuses and that the school still wants the MAPS study. The U of A went so far as to suggest a new principal investigator for the PTSD study, Dr. Francisco Moreno, who's worked with MAPS previously regarding psilocybin.

"We plan to be doing that [PTSD] research," Sigurdson says.

It's unclear how much credit the U of A should get for closing a loophole in the 2012 law it supported. The university won't be doing this research, either, not since MAPS rejected the U of A's offer promptly -- preferring to stick with the woman who fought tirelessly for the past four years to make the study happen.

The university's attempt to move forward with the study using anybody but Sisley is suspicious, particularly when the it's claiming it has nothing against her and that canceling her position was just part of a greater restructuring.

The state DHS says it had no problem with Sisley's continuing in her part-time job helping to administer the physician-education grant. The university, only after telling Sisley her contract wouldn't be renewed, sent an official notice to the DHS to terminate its part in the grant, funded at $300,000 annually for two more years. The unexpected canceling of the grant at the U of A caused the cancellation of 100 appointments with Arizona physicians. New Times also asked Sigurdson when the U of A made the "strategic decision" in the telemedicine department that contributed to Sisley's firing, which Garcia mentioned in his July 9 letter to Sisley. Sigurdson replied that a Flagstaff doctor was recruited and hired for the program in mid-April -- in other words, a couple of weeks after Biggs complained to Bee about Sisley.

No doubt, the planned research by Sisley and MAPS frayed many nerves. Veterans who plan to descend on the Board of Regents meeting later this month shouldn't expect too much. Regents chair Mark Killian, a former Republican state lawmaker from Mesa, tells New Times he personally doesn't believe this sort of research should be conducted on any of Arizona's college campuses.

"I told [Sisley] that there's so much opposition to the whole concept -- and maybe it's just perception, but it's there -- it ought to be done in a hospital clinic setting," Killian says. "That way, no one could say it's a bunch of wild people smoking marijuana on campus."

Killian says Sisley's a "great lady" and that he knows she wants to help veterans. But he insists that conducting the study at the U of A "doesn't pass the smell test." Fitting of his arch-conservative roots, he adds, "There's so much weird stuff going on in Colorado. I think it's tainted the whole issue."

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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.