Marijuana Study Backed By Feds Delayed After Researcher’s Firing

USA Today reports on the University of Arizona’s decision to fire marijuana researcher Dr. Sue Sisley, noting that Sisley believes her termination is the result of her political activism. The article highlights Sisley’s long path toward initiating MAPS’ planned research into the medical benefits of marijuana as a treatment for symptoms of PTSD in veterans, shares perspective from a University of Arizona representative regarding the political nature of Sisley’s termination, and explains the next steps necessary in order for Sisley’s FDA-approved marijuana research to be initiated. "We were on the cusp of finally implementing this study and helping veterans answer the question of what role marijuana can play in treating PTSD," explains Sisley.

Originally appearing here

As legal marijuana expands in the USA, with recreational sales starting Tuesday in Washington state, a first-of-its-kind pot study approved by the federal government is hitting a snag.

A researcher who received federal approval to study medical marijuana's effects on veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome was terminated from her university position, further delaying the long-awaited research.

Dr. Suzanne Sisley's termination, effective Sept. 26, means her research could be postponed by at least 1-1/2 years until she is appointed at another university and passes another university's review process, Sisley said in an interview with USA TODAY Network.

It has already taken her four years to get the federal government to approve her study, she said.

"We were on the cusp of finally implementing this study and helping veterans answer the question of what role marijuana can play in treating PTSD," Sisley said.

Sisley said she thinks her dismissal from the University of Arizona was "political retaliation" — a result of her pot-related work, Sisley said.

Specifically, Sisley said she had informal meetings with elected officials about the medical importance of marijuana research and the need to pass a state bill that would make some public funds available for marijuana research.

The University of Arizona declined to provide further information for Sisley's dismissal, saying it does not comment on personnel issues, according to George Humphrey, university spokesman, in an e-mail to USA TODAY Network.

Humphrey said "several individuals" received non-renewal notices, not just Sisley.

"However, you should know that UA has not received political pressure to terminate any employee," Humphrey said in the e-mail.

He added that U of A "championed" other bill that passed the state legislature last year allowing medical marijuana research to be conducted at public universities.

Sisley had three part-time roles at the University of Arizona: assistant director at the Arizona Telemedicine Program, a special projects coordinator at the medical school and a non-tenured clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry, the position that allowed her to do the marijuana research.

In notices sent to Sisley on June 27, the university said Sisley's three contracts would not be renewed. The decision was "final" and not subject to further review, according to the notices.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Arizona since 2010. This year, a bill was introduced that would allow the state to use fees collected from the medical marijuana industry to go toward pot research.

This bill, which Sisley supported, cleared the House but was never brought up in a Senate committee.

Sisley said she received a phone call in April from the university's vice president questioning what she said the university described as "political activity."

Under university policy, employees are allowed to participate in political activity outside the classroom but cannot allow that activity to affect their objectivity on the job. They also cannot use the university name or affiliation in supporting or opposing a political issue.

In an April e-mail to university administrators, Sisley said she never used university resources to participate in this activism and conducted her advocacy work outside of work hours.

First study of its kind

In 2011, Sisley received approval from the Food and Drug Administration to be the principal investigator of a triple-blind, randomized trial of 70 veterans with PTSD.

The study cleared a major hurdle in March when the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services' Public Health Service also approved the study.

Study participants will receive marijuana grown by the federal government with five varying amounts of the active ingredient, THC — anywhere from the placebo of no THC to 12% THC. The study will also examine the differences between smoking the drug versus vaporizing it.

In May, the University of Arizona signed a contract with Sisley and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a non-profit research and educational organization sponsoring the $1 million research, that would allow Sisley to do her work at U of A, The Arizona Republic reports.

However, in order for Sisley to begin, she still needed approval from a third federal agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA approval hinged on the university providing her a research space, she said.

To date, the evidence that medical marijuana could help with PTSD symptoms has been on a case-by-case basis.

"I can tell you it's good for me until I'm blue in the face, but nobody's ever going to know that until the research is done," said Ricardo Pereyda, a combat veteran with PTSD. "It's all anecdotal and rhetorical as far as anybody in a policy-making position is concerned."

Sisley said her hope is that she will be reinstated to her former positions at the university. If that doesn't happen, she said she worries that her marijuana research has made her so "politically radioactive that no university wants to touch me."