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

Phoenix New Times profiles marijuana researcher Dr. Sue Sisley, highlighting her determination to investigate new treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) through marijuana research. The article details Sisley’s progress toward initiating MAPS’ planned study of marijuana for PTSD in veterans, explains why Sisley’s termination from the University of Arizona received national media attention, and features an interview with Sisley about why she is passionate about conducting objective scientific research.

Originally appearing here.

Sue Sisley, M.D., is nearly blind.

She can't see out of her left eye and has minimal vision in her right, resulting from amblyopia, a condition she's had since birth. Her remaining eyesight "doesn't seem to be deteriorating further," she says. But in recent months, Sisley's been trying to train Penny, a rescue dog from the Humane Society, for her potentially to use someday. It's not really working out. Cute but undisciplined, Penny — wearing a blue vest — greets a visitor excitedly at the Arizona Telemedicine Program's Phoenix office.

On this Tuesday afternoon, 45-year-old Sisley is the only person working in the facility. She's got back-to-back video meetings with patients but takes a break to meet with a reporter, after a weeks-long stampede of attention from the news media.

Sisley's served on the telemedicine program's executive committee as associate director of interprofessional education, a part-time position, since 2007. The facility, in a wing of the University of Arizona's Phoenix campus at 550 East Van Buren, is one of the regional hubs for the high-tech program and one of the most highly touted divisions of the Tucson-based university's College of Medicine. From the center, as with other hubs in Flagstaff and Tucson, physicians such as Sisley consult with patients using video cameras and such high-tech instruments as digital stethoscopes, and they conduct various doctor-education programs.

Using equipment at the facility and at her Scottsdale home, she's one of the most prolific "virtual" doctors in the program, conducting thousands of patient consultataions yearly in her part-time U of A job and private telemedicine practice. It's a good match for her because it limits how much driving she has to do. She treats many rural mentally ill patients, some of whom have conditions that make them fearful of leaving their homes. She's won accolades for her work from patients and from her bosses at the U of A.

Yet at 5 p.m. on June 27, she was told in an e-mailed letter from the university that her contract wouldn't be renewed and that she had until September 29 to vacate the Phoenix facility.

A July 9 follow-up letter from Joe "Skip" Garcia, senior vice president of health services for the College of Medicine, and Stuart Flynn, her direct boss and dean of the College of Medicine's Phoenix branch, informed her that a "strategic decision" regarding the structure of the telemedicine program contributed to the non-renewal of her contract.

The letter also mentioned that her U of A role as coordinator for a physician-education program on medical marijuana no longer would be funded by a state grant; therefore, she no longer could be supported in the position — even though the three-year program was in its first year, with two-thirds of its money still in the bank.

No one outside the U of A knows for sure why Sisley was fired, not even Sisley. The university's refused to release details or records that would expose what really happened, citing employment guidelines.

The apparent problem was her intense focus on medical cannabis and her quest to launch an unprecedented, scientifically sound study on the effects of marijuana on veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I'm focused squarely on how we can get this vets research under way," she says. "That consumes me from the minute I wake up . . . I don't even understand why it's controversial.

Probably because [the medicine's] not pills — it's green and leafy."

Sisley stands at above-average height and has distinctive black, curly hair that falls below her shoulders. Her energy level is infectious. She's a habitual hugger with a warm personality and a mind that seems ready to race off in any direction. She's passionate about not only marijuana but about her other medical projects and her involvement in the arts community.

Unmarried and childless, she's devoted enormous time to helping children, winning awards and presidential commendations for her work with arts projects for at-risk kids. And she can be eccentric, as evidenced by a video on her YouTube channel featuring her dancing in an outlandish costume in support of the Phoenix Suns. Her extreme interest in cannabis, combined with her offbeat, driven personality, makes her sound similar to hippie-esque pot advocates who arm themselves with scientific-sounding jargon.

But she's no hippie.

Sisley's a lifelong Republican who says she's never tried marijuana, in any form. While in her medical-residency program, she was awarded a grant to produce a play, Think It Through Revue, which promoted sexual abstinence for teens. It was performed at "numerous middle schools, churches, and community events throughout Arizona," according to the March 17, 1999, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Sisley completed her undergraduate work at Northern Arizona University before moving on to the U of A to get her medical degree. She completed a five-year residency in 2000, specializing in psychiatry and internal medicine. She was in private practice in the Valley for several years with her mother, also an M.D.

Sisley has another major interest: politics.

She drafts and lobbies for legislation, openly supports or opposes candidates and issues, and last year tried to run a political-action committee. She campaigned for the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act before it was approved narrowly by voters in November 2010. Her typing skills can be measured in e-mails per hour, and her verbal and organizational acumen rival that of silver-tongued elected officials. She has a huge list of contacts in Arizona to lean on for support — or to harangue and criticize.

"That's what I do all day — call electeds and harass them," she says with a grin, half-kidding. After all, she also manages to conduct all those consultations.

In retrospect, it probably was inevitable that her obsessions with medical marijuana and politics would dovetail — and get her into trouble at work.

The story of what happened to Sue Sisley went viral when the news media jumped on it in early July.

For weeks, news outlets around the country ran stories about her firing and her allegation that political pressure on the U of A was the cause.

CNN's Sanjay Gupta, who famously changed his mind about medical marijuana last year after witnessing firsthand how well it worked for certain epileptic children, aired a sympathetic interview with Sisley on July 14. Her case — which may yet turn into a lawsuit or an investigation — has injected itself into the greater marijuana debate in this country, where half of the states have some form of medicinal-use leniency and where two states sell pot to the public like it's alcohol.

Sisley's apparent dismissal over her advocacy of pot to help veterans comes amid an investigation into a scandal originating in Phoenix involving fatally delayed care for terminally ill and suicidal patients at U.S. Veterans Administration hospitals.

In the view of progressiv
es and advocates for marijuana legalization, Sisley's firing was yet another embarrassment for Arizona in that it involved conservative leaders behaving dogmatically. The message that the Sisley debacle laid down to the rest of the nation was that Arizonans hate science concerning medicine the state's legalized.

Evidence shows that, despite denials by the U of A, political pressure to do something about Sisley did take place. That is, her allegation that the university caved in to that pressure stands up to scrutiny.

As for the research she championed — more delays. The action against her came at the same time that the study of pot's effect on PTSD patients moved forward after years of effort and was headed for an official start early next year.

The federal Food and Drug Administration had approved the study in April 2011. This was followed by approval by the U of A's Institutional Review Board in October 2012. Then, crucially, on March 14, the federal Department of Health and Human Services approved the study to receive 22 pounds of government-grown weed in January for testing on male and female veterans diagnosed with PTSD.

The study actually is the property of the California-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which owns all the government approvals. Sisley's the principal investigator — as well as the study's most vocal proponent.

With the tearing up of her contract went Sisley's academic appointment at the U of A, which would have allowed her to conduct the research on campus. No federally approved location, no study. Sisley and MAPS now are shopping around for a new location. They asked NAU — and were treated as though they were radioactive.

Marijuana is a touchy subject in Arizona, home to rabidly right-wing, six-term Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an official state gun, and tough policies regarding undocumented immigrants.

Proposition 203, the medical-marijuana ballot initiative sponsored by the national Marijuana Policy Project, passed only narrowly — by about 4,400 votes statewide. Since then, prohibitionist leaders, including Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk and Republican state Senator Kimberly Yee of Phoenix, have worked actively to undermine it.

Credibility in a research project like this, therefore, is key. A university setting adds prominence to scientific studies.

Research into whether marijuana is an effective treatment for PTSD is minimal, a fact noted by state Department of Health Services Director Will Humble in December, when he rejected a petition to add PTSD to the list of qualifying ailments for the state's roughly 50,000 medical-marijuana patients. Previous studies involved only a handful of patients. A study by New Mexico researchers, published in January, later changed Humble's mind, and on July 9, he agreed to allow diagnosed PTSD patients to obtain registration cards under certain conditions. But as Humble's order reveals, he still wasn't convinced that the New Mexico study had proved marijuana could do much more than temporarily relieve some symptoms.

By contrast, Sisley's study, if it comes to fruition, will be one of the most rigorous ever done on the subject. It even could lead to FDA approval of whole-plant marijuana as a treatment for PTSD.

Therefore, says MAPS president Rick Doblin, Sisley's firing may be a last-ditch attempt by right-wingers to stop medical marijuana from becoming more widely accepted in Arizona, not just under state law but under federal law, too. The increasing popularity of the plant, he says, strikes fear in the hearts of prohibitionist lawmakers.

Indeed, there's little question that Sisley, even more than the study, ticked off certain powerful people. One specific reason that the U of A axed her may have been her role, however minimal, in the April recall effort targeting Senator Yee.

In any case, Sisley and her supporters aren't taking her firing lying down. She's threatened a lawsuit. The nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has called for a state investigation into the possibility that the university, at the behest of at least one state senator, conspired to violate Sisley's First Amendment rights.

Following the U of A's July 28 rejection of Sisley's appeal of her firing, members of a veterans' group announced that they would show up by the hundreds at a September 25 public meeting of the Arizona Board of Regents in Flagstaff to demand that officials reinstate Sisley at one of the state's universities and provide her with necessary space and resources to conduct her study.