Arizona Wanted

Most of an ousted UA researcher's marijuana/PTSD study will find a home in Colorado, but Sue Sisley still hopes a part of it remains in Arizona

It's not as if the odds of Sue Sisley being reinstated as a professor at the UA are in her favor, but the psychiatrist hopes that part of her study testing marijuana's effectiveness in treating veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, will at the very least remain in Arizona.

Right now, if any chance exists, it's at ASU, but Sisley doesn't know when the Tempe school's administration will make a formal decision or announcement.

However, it's not as if the psychiatrist has been sitting around waiting for a champion since the UA administration notified her in late June that it wouldn't renew her contracts with the school, and unsuccessfully tried to replace her with a new principal investigator to continue the research she started.

The problem for the UA all along in getting rid of Sisley, in what she has always claimed was due to political pressure from a far-right state legislature that holds the education purse strings, is that two groups have steadfastly remained on her side: her research sponsor, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and a growing group of military veterans tired of waiting for help as an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide every day. Some say that number is conservative.

While the UA communicated with MAPS that it wanted to keep the research at the UA, but with a new investigator, MAPS said no. Sisley and her attorney's filed an appeal, but that was rejected by the UA administration in late July. So Sisley and MAPS looked elsewhere.

Sisley told the Weekly that University of Colorado-Denver has offered part of the study a home and she and MAPS just received an invitation to another Colorado school and will announce those details soon. What's more remarkable is that Colorado has also offered needed funding through the Colorado Department of Health and Environment. Colorado's state legislature passed a bill to create a medical marijuana research grant protect for up to 15 projects to use close to $9 million the state accrued from medical marijuana reserves from patient registrations.

Sisley said the reception in Colorado has been so different from the fear and rejection she's experienced in Arizona. In Denver recently for a continuing medical education conference specifically for medical marijuana doctors, Sisley said she received a two-minute standing ovation after she spoke about her work and her recent challenges.

And while going back to the UA isn't an option, somehow the veterans backing Sisley and her work aren't giving up on at least getting answers and maybe some justice.

Sean Kiernan, a veteran and founder of Veterans for Doctor Sue Sisley MD & PTSD Research, sent a letter to the Arizona Board of Regents on Sept. 11 asking that ABOR request an independent review of "the circumstances surrounding the termination" of Sisley. Kierman said he plans to attend the next ABOR meeting at NAU on Thursday, Sept. 25, and will speak with other veterans. They hope for a large turn-out, but Kierman said he can't guarantee they will pack the house.

In his letter, Kierman explains to ABOR that Sisley's research is essentially a matter of an emergency—if it mirrors anecdotal evidence veterans provided to Sisley and others over the years, that marijuana treats PTSD symptoms better than the VA prescription medications they've received—then the study can save lives.

"This country is losing 22 of its veterans per day to suicide. That is over 8,000 deaths per year, and over 16,000 deaths since late 2012 when the University of Arizona's Independent Review Board approved a study put forward by Dr. Sue Sisley that would have studied the use of Cannabis as a tool in alleviating symptoms related to PTSD in veterans," he wrote.

"To underscore the magnitude of this unfolding national tragedy, I want to highlight that the 16,000 suicides since late 2012 is 235% higher than the total number of US service members this country has lost fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Now, due to Arizona politics and a university easily controlled by legislator whims, Sisley's research has been further delayed. And because of that—how Sisley was terminated—Kierman and his fellow veterans are asking that an independent review take place. "A transparent accounting of the circumstances surrounding this issue is of grave importance to citizens of the great State of Arizona and this Country's Veterans who risked life and limb to uphold the very ideals that seem to have been called into question here."

"To paraphrase a quote based on Dante's Inferno, 'The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.' This board has the power and moral imperative to act on this request without delay," Kierman wrote.

One reason why the ASU option remains important to Sisley, is that in order to qualify for the state funding from Colorado to pay for the study, she needs three sites confirmed. Right now she has two, but that third is needed in order to present Colorado officials an accurate budget.

While supporters who've talked with ASU President Michael Crow have said it looks positive, Sisley said her experience the past two years with the UA have made her realize that she won't feel confident until a written contract is put in front of her.

"I want to see ASU show some leadership, but if there's nothing in writing it doesn't exist ... they are going to have to prove to the vets they are serious. Believe me, they've been welcoming and gracious and have acted like they wanted this research, but the UA did that to me, too," Sisley said.

Sisley added that to meet requirements for Colorado, she needs to know by Sept. 20.

But like the veterans who support her work, Sisley also wants justice, or at least some transparency. She's heard some veterans complain that they may not be allowed to speak at the ABOR meeting, especially if they arrive in the hundreds.

Veteran Louis Nevitt sent an email to Crow and ABOR asking that all veterans who attend be allowed to address the representatives during call to audience. Nevitt shared that they had been assured that time, but he wants additional confirmation. At past meeting, rather than allow veterans to air concerns, the board has gone into executive session, in effect preventing the veterans' testimony from going on record.

No one has responded to his concerns.