Dr. Sue Sisley, a medical marijuana researcher, speaks at the Arizona Secretary of State's Office in Phoenix in April 2010. (Matt York, Associated Press file)

Sue Sisley’s pot-and-PTSD study isn’t yet funded, but she’s still celebrating

Scientist Sue Sisley is best known for her very public firing by the University of Arizona — but she hopes to soon be better known as the researcher who is testing the efficacy of marijuana as a treatment to post-traumatic stress disorder in American veterans.

And while Sisley is a finalist for a historic Colorado grant meant for cannabis research, she hasn’t yet received the grant — regardless of incorrect reports in the media, including this site.

Of 57 applications for state-funded research grants received in Colorado, an advisory council recommended eight studies (including Sisley’s) to the Colorado Board of Health in late-November. The board will choose from those studies in a Dec. 17 meeting.

“The health department put out the release, and the press got a hold of it,” Sisley told The Cannabist on Dec. 1. “The nuance between being recommended and being officially approved might have gotten lost.”

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To be clear: Sisley and her partners haven’t been selected for the Colorado grant, but they are finalists. And that alone gives them reason to celebrate, Sisley said.

“Just being recommended is worth celebrating,” Sisley said. “We submitted this in 2010, and here we are four years later battling the government. Veterans do have a right to celebrate, even if the final grant hasn’t been approved, because a group of independent scientists values the scientific merit of this study.”

Bob Sievers is a professor of chemistry and former regent at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and he called the state’s eight recommended studies “enormously important.”

“It’s a sad fact that most of the cannabis research that has been funded in the past has been restricted to the hazards of cannabis and not to its possible medical benefits,” Sievers said. “But the notion that there could be, just maybe, one of the dozens of cannabinoids that would do someone some good if they were taken in a purified form, without much risk from the psychoactive form, the THC.

“Our duty is to study and try to find the truth as we see it, and if we’re not even allowed to make a determination of whether there might be value, and in the face of all the work coming out of Europe — thank god the rest of the world isn’t as crippled as U.S. scientists and universities are — they’re publishing, they’re patenting.”

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When the Associated Press incorrectly reported on the grant process last week, Sisley’s email and voicemail blew up with encouraging words, she said.

“The best thing that came out of this hopefully premature reporting was a groundswell of support from people I didn’t even realize were following this story,” said Sisley. “They’re stepping forward and saying, ‘We’re so grateful to see this injustice righted.’ I was fired, and they’re recognizing the injustice of my being fired. My advocacy of this research put my job in jeopardy, and people wanted to see a happy ending to this story.”

While Sisley says she was fired from the University of Arizona over political reasons, as insinuated above, the university hasn’t specifically addressed its reasons for letting her go.

Next up for Sisley and her team, which includes the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies: They are submitting their revisions to the Food and Drug Administration, continuing their discussions with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which will eventually supply its study-marijuana for the testing, and submitting applications to multiple institutional review boards at Johns Hopkins University and another to-be-named university that will eventually grant Sisley an uncompensated academic appointment.

“Even before the recommendation was announced, there’s been a ton of out-of-state universities reaching out over what they believe is a huge blow to scientific freedom — my firing — so they’ve been reaching out and courting the study,” said Sisley. “I don’t need a salary or a space. I had a giant building donated by someone who believes in the work, who believes in science over politics. And we came to (Arizona State University) with a space and a salary, and they still wouldn’t embrace the research.”

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Sisley attempted to keep the study fully in Arizona after being let go by AU, but both ASU and Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff were not interested, she said. A number of colleges outside the state, including the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and at least one Colorado school, are in talks with Sisley about potentially hosting the study.

“So I’m spending the next two weeks flying to different institutions to see if they’ll be a good fit.”

Out-of-state academic appointment or not, Sisley hopes to keep at least half of the research in Arizona, she said.

“I don’t want to take the research out of state,” she said. “Keeping some of the research in Arizona would be a victory for scientific freedom. By forcing me out of state, me and my research, that would be a loss. I don’t want to turn my back on the 560,000 veterans in Arizona, and many of them have stood shoulder to shoulder with me for four years as we’ve been trying to start this research.

“Our Arizona universities may be willing to sacrifice our veterans, but we are not.”