Reefer Research Madness

By: Mari Hererras

Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly gives an overview of the current controversy surrounding medical marijuana research in Arizona, featuring critical commentary about the University of Arizona’s decision to fire MAPS-sponsored marijuana researcher Dr. Sue Sisley. Mari Herreras of Tucson Weekly highlights Sisley’s plans to continue working toward initiating MAPS’ FDA-approved clinical research into marijuana for PTSD, and provides needed perspective about how politics can influence the actions of universities by controlling schools’ budgets. “While her research has been delayed, veterans are dying,” explains Arizona veteran Ricardo Pereyda. “She’s advocating saving lives. Why would you rebuke her for that advocacy?”

Originally appearing here.

When UA President Ann Weaver Hart unveiled a new strategic plan last year to the Arizona Board of Regents, she and other administrators made it clear this was about transforming Tucson’s land-grant university into a grant-producing super-research center of higher learning ready to grow economies and minds.

The strategic plan—titled “Never Settle”—was first communicated through a video that announced the plan’s manifesto with images of desert, scientists and dreamers: “… We’re a land-grant university that’s transforming science fiction into scientific fact, rising from the sands of the Sonoran Desert … For those who demand an unrelenting approach to teaching, research, and service, we say: NEVER SETTLE.”

At the ABOR presentation, Hart reportedly explained, “We mean it when we say ‘Never Settle.’ It captures the spirit of the future that we believe is strong. … Those who demand an unrelenting approach to teaching, research and service will love Never Settle, and that’s our future.”

However, to the only academic in the United States to receive federal approval to do cannabis research, as well as veterans who support her work, those words Never Settle ring hollow right now. Early this month, UA assistant professor Sue Sisley was terminated and told her contract, which expires September 26, would not be renewed.

The frenzy of media attention that followed hasn’t exactly dissipated—making it difficult for the university to prove that everything in Never Settle land is fine.

Although Sisley’s research on the use of marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress disorder on veterans hasn’t begun, it’s been declared groundbreaking, yet its been years for the Phoenix-based psychiatrist to get the necessary approvals and win needed support, including that at the UA. However, with most obstacles cleared and the April federal approval to test marijuana on veterans, it seemed like the doctor was getting closer to the work she intended to do.

Some media reports have declared that Sisley’s latest challenge—her termination—surely must mean defeat. Talking from Atlanta, where she’s taping several interviews at CNN, in particular with medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, Sisley told the Tucson Weekly there’s not sitting back, hand ringing or tears right now.

Instead, the doctors is focused on talking to as many people as she can about what’s taken place, particularly the national media, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, Vice, The Daily Beast and others. No, she said, this is a fight for scientific freedom and veterans—a group of patients she’s treated in her telemedicine practice for years.

“I’m talking because this is a giant blow to scientific freedom and every story and report helps us shine a national spotlight to this injustice,” she said. “I’ve been fighting this battle for four years and suddenly something like this happens.”

Sisley said the tragedy is that her dismissal isn’t based on job performance, but political pressure from the state’s conservative Senate President Andy Biggs. In early April, Sisley said she received a call from Skip Garcia, senior vice president for health sciences at the UA Arizona Health Sciences Center, who told her Biggs called Hart and demanded the doctor provide all records of her texts, emails and communications, accusing her of being engaged in what he considered inappropriate political activity.

Perhaps what put Sisley in front of Biggs’ purview, prompting the state senator to call Hart’s office with his demands, was when she and others worked to get the state Department of Health Services to place PTSD on the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana patients. It was approved by an administrative law judge last month, it was approved by an administrative law judge last month, and on Wednesday, July 9 Arizona Department of Health Services Director Will Humble authorized the use of marijuana for PTSD as long as patients are currently undergoing conventional treatment for a PTSD diagnosis.

Although Sisley’s research wouldn’t have used state general fund monies, early in the year Biggs did introduce an amendment to a budget bill that would have prohibited universities from using those general funds from going toward marijuana research. The amendment was a small footnote in the budget proposal, but once word got out, Biggs pulled it, saying he just didn’t think state general funds should go toward marijuana.

Then there’s GOP darling and state Senator Kimberly Yee, who blocked a bill Sisley supported that would have allowed the state Department of Health Services to allocate money to research from the medical marijuana patient processing fee fund surplus now at more than $9 million. In response to Yee blocking the bill, a recall effort was started against the legislator.

What’s obvious to Sisley and others is that the budget for all state universities is controlled by the state legislature and in Arizona, that’s a right-wing legislature that hasn’t exactly been friendly when it comes to medical marijuana or public education.

“Sometimes we’ve been lucky enough to have a president with the courage to defend research that is known to be adverse to certain legislators,” she said. But not this time. This time, in a climate of recovery from the state’s disastrous cuts to public education spending, it’s easier to terminate someone rather than fight.

In the latest state budget rounds, the UA asked for more than $30 million in additional funding—$11.8 million for performance funding, $8 million for a new veterinary school and $15 million for discovery and innovation. But only $5.5 million was allocated to the UA—$2 million for research infrastructure and $3.5 million for the UA’s Cooperative Extension. Attempts by the UA to recover from the economic recession that began six years ago and the deep state cuts to education that followed has failed, with state funding down close to 8 percent for the general education fund. Two-thirds of the university’s general education funding came from the state and now it’s less than one-third.

Funding and ideology may be responsible for Sisley’s termination, but she said the fight now is about science and veterans. This isn’t a strategy to promote marijuana legalization as conservative lawmakers want the public to believe, but about showing that this plant can offer valuable medicine—especially to our veterans suffering from PTSD who desperately need relief from the symptoms they experience once home—insomnia, anger, frustration, depression, difficulty being out in public, among others.

“The eyes of the world are on us now—not just Arizona. It’s unreal. My inbox is so full of thousa
nds of messages from scientists and veterans,” she said.

“It is sad, but I have not lost my devotion to the UA. I’m an alum. I graduated from the med school there. But what’s obvious is that the administration has created a culture of fear. This firing has had a chilling effect on research in general. No one is going to embark on highly controversial work. It could be a career-ending decision. But isn’t that part of the reason we paid taxes—we always thought of a university as sanctuary for what is sometimes perceived as controversial work.”

If Sisley broke any advocacy rules that led to her termination, no one is talking. We called Biggs for comment, but did not here from him or anyone from his office by press time. In response to a message and email we sent to the UA’s Skip Garcia, George Humphrey, assistant vice president of the Arizona Health Sciences Center’s office of public affairs, confirmed in an email that Garcia’s office is unable to comment on why Sisley was terminated as it is a personnel matter.

“However, in regard to marijuana-related research, the University of Arizona is committed to ensuring the medical marijuana research gets done. We’ve been in contact with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, the organization that is sponsoring the study, and we are working with them to bring the clinical trial to fruition,” Humphrey wrote.

“In regard to marijuana research in general: In 2013, the UA championed state legislation to ensure that Arizona universities could perform medical marijuana research on campus. (For your reference that was SB1443: Marijuana; postsecondary education; medical research. It was signed by the Governor on 5/07/13.).”

Humphrey added that to his knowledge the UA has not received political pressure to terminate any employee, or any research “we do, or who does it, as it has been suggested in some reports.” Humphrey included a link to a Tucson Citizen story that included Paul Consroe, a now retired UA pharmacology professor, who was studying the effect of marijuana on muscle spasticity back in the 1990s.

Sisley said that’s not true. She doesn’t agree with how the UA is now trying to frame her termination. Every turn with the UA has been difficult at times. What Humphrey is referring to is when the UA told Sisley her research wasn’t allowed on campus because of a state law that prohibited marijuana on university campuses passed in response to medical marijuana. She found herself in the position of explaining that because her research had federal approval it trumped state law. Nonetheless, in 2013 the school lobbied for legislation that made exceptions to the law for research purposes—the legislation was approved without much fanfare or controversy.

“Not much of a fight there,” she said.

Perhaps Biggs thought Sisley was behind the recall effort against Yee. “Not me. Veterans were rampaging. They blamed her because she pretty much single handedly killed the bill. … I was definitely not shy about calling her out, but I never lobbied and I wasn’t involved in the recall.”

Sisley was stripped of three positions she held at the UA, including her work at the Arizona Telemedicine Program at the UA medical school in Phoenix. She said she wasn’t given a reason for the nonrenewal of her contract. “I was told that neither of my bosses wanted to fire me, that this came from up on high, which proves that this is pure political retaliation for daring to be front and center of the most controversial research at the UA and fearless in trying to overcome every barrier.”

Sisley has 15 days to appeal, in which she is allowed to write an appeal to the same people who terminated her. “We are going to exhaust every administrative appeal that is available. They’ve taken all my work away and refused to give me a fair hearing. No due process,” she said. “The legal team I have is planning to file an injunction against violation of my due process rights. They are examining breach of contract.”

What helps Sisley through these next steps is also the continued backing of her research sponsor, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. The California nonprofit has even had to make that clear to the UA more than once since Sisley’s termination went public.

According to Sisley, MAPS communicated to the UA that if the PTSD research was to stay at the UA the principal investigator needed to remain Sisley or the research would go elsewhere. However, that didn’t stop the UA from trying to reframe what was taking place, at least according to emails shared with the Weekly.

On Friday, July 11, by email, MAPS executive director Rick Doblin responded to an email from Caroline M. Garcia, UA associate vice president for research, who thanked Doblin for his response, “I have shared your response with our senior leadership.  We will move forward as we discussed yesterday to propose a new University of Arizona Principal Investigator for this research study.”

Doblin wrote back: “I thought my prior response was clear, perhaps not. Dr. Sisley would make an ideal Principal Investigator.  If Dr. Sisley’s appeal to the University of Arizona to be reinstated is not successful, MAPS will not replace her as the PI but will move the study elsewhere. Your replacing Dr. Sisley may constitute a breach of our contract and we will be seeking advice of counsel regarding that issue.”

MAPS and Sisley are will to wait the appeal and legal process out—after all she has until September and right now the last part of her research waiting game is really up to the National Institute on Drug Abuse—the federal organization responsible for the production of marijuana used for federal studies and research. Despite all those greenhouses out there supplying medical marijuana and legal marijuana for states like Colorado, it can’t be used for Sisley’s research. The marijuana has to be grown and provided by NIDA according to federal regulations. NIDA communicated to MAPS and Sisley that marijuana may not be available until after January 2015.

“Frustratingly, NIDA is by law required to have an adequate and uninterrupted supply of marijuana for research, which it has failed to do.  As a result, we can’t start for another half year until NIDA can provide the marijuana that it claimed in writing over three years ago (January 14, 2011) that it could make available for an approved protocol.  While we are waiting on NIDA, there is time for Dr. Sisley’s appeal process to run its course without delaying the start of our study,” Doblin wrote to Garcia.

“We hope Dr. Sisley’s appeal process resolves successfully with the reversal of her termination. Dr. Sisley has devoted a great deal of her time over many years to bring this project to this point of FDA, IRB and PHS/NIDA approval. If there is anything I can do to assist in the review of Dr. Sisley’s appeal, please let me know.”

Veterans—including those she worked with previously who inspired her when they came out of the shadows to explain how marijuana eased their PTSD symptoms—remain in her corner, too They helped organized her current legal team. “They are standing by me like the true warriors they are and they are going to make sure the UA does right thing.”

According to her New Mexico-based attorney Jason Flores-Williams, the support is there because Sisley has been a tireless advocate for veterans and the research. “But for the efforts of my client, this grant and research would not even exist.”

The support and backing feels great, but unlike other research academics at the UA who work in fear or worry about speaking out, Sisley said she’s in a good place. She’s not beholden to the UA
for her living and maintains a private practice. And she hopes another Arizona university is willing to take in her research project—if that’s what it comes down to.

“I have received numerous inquiries around the country … but this is where my heart is and the veterans. There are 530,000 veterans living in Arizona and many have participated with me day by day in the work to help stop stone-walling this study. I won’t turn my back on them if the UA refuses to do the right thing,” she said.

But Sisley said she wonders if the UA realizes the problem at hand—veterans will not forget what’s taken place. They won’t forget that the UA was willing to sacrifice them to the state’s right wing legislature. Those who return to the states and plan to attend school using their GI bill cash may consider going elsewhere now. “Veterans may vote with their feet.”

Ricardo Pereyda, a Tucson native, veteran and steadfast Wildcat, said he grew up in the shadow of the UA on the south side of Tucson. He never thought a college education would be part of his future, which is why he joined the U.S. Army and served from 2003-2009 in the military police corp. He received an honorable discharge in 2009 and has used his GI bill to help pay for school at the UA where he first became aware of Sisley and her research.

“I was president of the Student Veterans of America chapter, and I was approached by some media about her proposed research,” he said. “At that time I didn’t feel comfortable coming out and saying ‘Yes, I use cannabis,’ because of my position at the university acting as the head of a chartered organization. I could only profess my support without the details.”

However, Pereyda said he’s in a good position now to put those details out there, after all he’s only shy a few classes to finish his public management and policy degree with an emphasis on criminal justice. He walked last year and took a sabbatical to complete two fellowships with the Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and the other with Mission Continues. He hopes to do a master’s degree in public health.

As a fellow with the leadership academy, he found out through Daniel Hernandez that Sisley had completed the academy, and that’s when he decided it was time to reach out to her and let her know he would do anything to help her further her research. She needed veterans to publicly state they in fact used cannabis and that it helped.

There are two worlds when deployed in Iraq—when you are running missions and when you are “in the rears with your unit,” he said. When he’d return from running missions that’s when he realized something was wrong and what he’s realize later were the first symptoms of PTSD.

“The last couple of months I was there I was terrified,” he recalled. When first deployed there is a period of time of going from being a naïve soldier to getting used to your surroundings and the situation on the ground. But as he got closer to the end of his own deployments, he’d hear stories of people getting killed their last day, their last hours.

“When we started running hazardous missions towards the end of my deployment I kept thinking ‘My number is going to come up soon.” Back with the unit, he found himself in what he described as a different space that made it difficult for him to follow the rules or respect the chain of command. “I had trouble respecting people who hadn’t been down range who had to teach me about being down range.”

While he probably wasn’t alone in what he was experiencing, Pereyda said he sure felt alone. “You don’t talk about it. When I started realizing I was having these issues, I didn’t know what to do with it.”

When he returned home it was his then-wife who pointed out the change in Pereyda. He said he was unable to get a good night sleep and feel comfortable in crowds. He had to identify safe places.

“I didn’t want chain of command in Iraq to know because I knew I’d get flagged and then be fully stigmatized as being a shit bag,” he said. Once stateside he worked to get it addressed and what he worried would happen in Iraq, happened at home.

“I went to find answers—why is this happening? Why am I having difficulty showing up to work, difficulty controlling my emotions and shit and what can I do to address the situation so I can perform my job and continue being essential personal,” he said.

“When I related this to the counselor, I didn’t know about PTSD, all I knew I was going through some issues and needed help resolving those issues. I went and talked to a counselor and I was told I was suffering from PTSD and it was relayed back to my command. … All of a sudden I was ostracized and (given a) no-weapons profile and shuffled to other positions that for lack of a better term is called bitch detail.”

He said he was labeled damaged goods and he felt like a weight to his command which had to figure out what to do with him. He no longer had warrior status. He was put on narcotics and eventually received an honorable discharge, but at 23, he felt like he was kicked out of a career he had once hoped to make life-long.

When prescribed medications, Pereyda said he had placed faith in the U.S. Army and VA that they knew best, but after a couple of years on prescription narcotics, it dawned on him that he wasn’t feeling better and he continued to “spiral down rather than rise above what I was facing.” At the UA he met other veterans who used cannabis to relieve symptoms and urged him to try it. He slowly went off his medications in 2009 and on the black market that exists in Tucson, he bought $60 work of marijuana, which would last him a month or two and made a difference.

“I could be productive. In fact I was able to be more productive,” he said.

“My record at the UA speaks to that. I went from being afraid to leave my house to conducting numerous service projects and events at the UA. The proof is in the pudding in my mind. Before, I had a very hard time even just interacting with my wife, parents, friends, siblings.”

Sisley’s research could potentially help relieve PTSD symptoms without subscription narcotics, but to Pereyda it’s about saving lives—those 22 veterans a day who commit suicide because the PTSD is unbearable and the treatment some veterans receive just doesn’t help.

“While her research has been delayed, veterans are dying. You need to analyze your action closely,” Pereyda said, as if talking to Biggs and the UA administration. “She’s advocating saving lives. Why would you rebuke her for that advocacy?”

Is it that big pharma is worried that Sisley’s research will show that this plant is medicine that can’t be effectively reproduced? Is it that the UA and right-wing legislators don’t want to think about veterans using marijuana on campus as part of the research? Would they rather that veterans become addicted to oxycontins or Xanax?

“If I can grow 12 plants in my yard that would give me enough medicinal properties to relieve my symptoms,” he said, “well that’s a big hurt on the pharmaceutical companies and others who stand to lose a lot of money, I suppose.”