By Michael Roberts
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Sean Azzariti spent six years in the Marines and was deployed to Iraq twice. Today he's fighting for the right to use medical marijuana. "When I first got out of the military, in October 2006, I was diagnosed with severe PTSD," he recalls. The doctors prescribed heavy prescription drugs, but they didn't work for him. Instead, Azzariti turned to cannabis. "It saved my life," he says.
The 32-year-old Denver vet is such a proponent of cannabis to combat post-traumatic stress disorder that he worked on the campaign for Amendment 64, starring in a commercial that went across the state, and became the first person in Colorado to buy recreational marijuana on January 1. During the last legislative session, he worked with Representative Jonathan Singer to have PTSD added to the list of ailments for a red card; Colorado is one of the very few states that has legalized medical marijuana but has not officially recognized its benefits for those suffering from PTSD. The bill lost in committee, five to four. "It was a heartbreaker," Azzariti says, "but we're coming back next year, and we're going to make it happen."
The legislature did pass a bill that called for the creation of the Medical Marijuana Research Grant Program, and last Friday, Colorado's Medical Marijuana Scientific Advisory Council held its first meeting to discuss ground rules for the program. Over the next five years, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will use about $9 million from medical marijuana cash funds and reserves collected through patient registrations to pay for ten to fifteen research grants to study marijuana.
And if there is any justice, at least one of those grants will go to Dr. Sue Sisley. "She's the only doctor I've come across who's dedicating her career to helping veterans get the cannabis they need," Azzariti says. "I respect that more than anything."
Sisley is the groundbreaking researcher at the University of Arizona who has been working since 2010 with the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) to initiate a study of the safety and effectiveness of whole-plant marijuana for symptoms of PTSD in seventy veterans.
She's also a "lifelong Republican, not some pot-smoking hippie," she says. "I've never even tried marijuana."
Sisley's work has the approval of the U.S Food and Drug Administration — a high hurdle, since marijuana is still categorized as a Schedule 1 drug by the federal government — and the University of Arizona Institutional Review Board; this past March, her study became the first whole-plant medical marijuana drug development research project to get the okay from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to purchase marijuana from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which has a monopoly on marijuana used for research in this country. (It's grown at the University of Mississippi, of all places.) And come January, right when the money for Colorado's first grants will be distributed, Sisley should have all the official marijuana she needs to do the kind of documented, clinical study of cannabis that people have been clamoring for.
But where, exactly, will that study be based? On June 27, the University of Arizona notified Sisley that her university appointment would be terminated on September 26. Although the university is officially silent on the reasons for her termination — "Sorry, but the University of Arizona does not comment on personnel issues," the school told Phoenix New Times — it assured our partner paper that "you should know that the UA has not received political pressure to terminate any employees." And if you believe that, we have some ditchweed we'd like to sell you for $300 an ounce.
"They could never get comfortable with the idea of this controversial, high-profile research happening on campus," Sisley told the New York Times, one of many national outlets to report on her firing — and the political maneuvers behind it.
More than 600,000 veterans live in Arizona. The state has the largest concentration of vets in the country and has been at the center of the Veterans Health Administration scandal. And those vets were spoiling for a fight when they heard of Sisley's ouster. Richard Pereyda, a vet who, like Azzariti, suffers from PTSD, started a petition on change.org demanding that Sisley's study be kept in Arizona; within three weeks, the petition had over 100,000 signatures. When Sisley's request that she be reinstated was denied by UA at the end of July, Pereyda modified the poll to ask the school's Board of Regents to help find a new home for the study. That group will meet later this month — but in the meantime, other universities are courting her.
Earlier this year, before Sisley became a hot pot-ato in Arizona, she'd approached the University of Colorado to see if CU might want to participate in her study. "It is a perfect collaboration," she says. "If we can do a multi-site trial, it's so much more compelling to the FDA." According to CU, those discussions were very informal. But the school would be smart to tie on a cummerbund and make them very formal.
Sisley's supporters include Dr. Andrew Weil (best known in Denver as the inspiration for True Foods Kitchen), who called himself "a strong advocate for research into the bioactivity of cannabis and its future impact on medicine and wellness" in a letter he wrote to Ann Weaver Hart, UA president, urging her to reconsider ousting Sisley. "Having conducted the first human trials on cannabis while at Harvard, and in subsequent clinical exploration of traditional therapies, I have experienced first-hand the difficulties encountered while attempting to perform objective research on controversial matters."