The University of Arizona fired a psychiatry professor this week whose research on medical marijuana and veterans was finally green-lighted by federal authorities in March after a years-long chokehold.
Dr. Sue Sisley, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry who has been working for five years to get approvals for her study on medical marijuana for post-traumatic stress disorder, says she was fired after she advocated for a state bill that would have funded her research through the state’s medical marijuana revenue. That bill didn’t pass, but she says a university official asked her for an explanation of her political activity.
“It’s a very clear attack on this kind of work,” Sisley told ThinkProgress of her firing. She said even before she was told this week that her contract would not be renewed for her non-tenure position, the university had relegated her research to the fringes, offering her subpar research space with no electricity, and rejecting her requests for other empty space with the explanation that she couldn’t conduct marijuana research in the same building as the dean. University officials have denied that her firing had anything to do with her study or political pressure from lawmakers.
Sisley’s termination won’t just affect her career. It will also effectively terminate the U.S. marijuana research that received approval from federal authorities to use a legal supply of marijuana.
Sisley has been fighting for years to perform research on the relief that marijuana can provide to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Her triple-blind study received approval from the Food and Drug Administration, but was thwarted for years by her inability to access a legal supply of marijuana. That supply is controlled in the United States by a federal panel that includes the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That panel refused for years to grant marijuana for Sisley’s study. But in March, the agency took the potentially momentous step of approving a supply of marijuana for Sisley’s study. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which is backing the study, said it was the first time in 22 years it has been granted access to a legal supply of marijuana. Others have received “research-grade marijuana” since 1999, according to NIDA, but Sisley’s appears to be the only current project.
The federal approval meant Sisley was on the brink of being able to perform her research, which could help hundreds of thousands of American veterans and others suffering from PTSD. Veterans and others suffering from PTSD have long vouched anecdotally that marijuana provides unique relief for their symptoms. And a study last May that examined the brain without actually administering marijuana suggested that cannabis may mitigate the flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, and other symptoms that plague PTSD sufferers.
Last February, a a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology and one-time MacArthur Fellow analogized the suppression of marijuana research to creationist control over paleontology, citing this PTSD study. “The most blatant example of this behavior came last year, when NIDA blocked an FDA-approved clinical trial testing marijuana as a remedy for post traumatic stress disorder,” said John H. Schwarz. “… Consider what American science might look like if all research were run like marijuana research is being run now. Suppose the Institute for Creation Science were put in charge of approving paleontology digs and the science of human evolution. Imagine what would happen to the environment if we gave coal and oil companies the power to block any climate research they didn’t like.”
Sisley’s contract will be terminated in September, according to the letter she received from university officials. And she cannot complete her research in that timeline. She may be able to bring her research to another university if she is hired but worries about “getting another academic appointment after this kind of baggage.”