Sue Sisley Has Become a Hot Potato in Arizona, but Her Medical Marijuana Students Would Be a Real Catch for Colorado

Sean Azzariti buying Colorado’s first recreational pot.
Sean Azzariti buying Colorado’s first recreational pot.
Brandon Marshall

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 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."

The Drug Policy Alliance has also weighed in on Sisley's side, as has the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and veterans' groups across the country. "The firing of Dr. Sue Sisley by the University of Arizona is an absolutely disgusting political move," says Azzariti. "This research is imperative right now at a time when we have 22-plus veterans a day committing suicide."

And with her approval from federal health officials, Sisley is ready to help them now. "Within two years we could have publishable data that could send this to phase three, with 1,000 patients," Sisley says. If the research goes well, it could lead to developing the marijuana plant in smoked form into an FDA-approved prescription medicine, according to MAPS.

Because navigating all the federal requirements to get marijuana research approved — and then get the Mississippi marijuana itself — can take years, Colorado's Medical Marijuana Research Grant Program will have to consider some proposals that are not as involved as Sisley's, the only randomized control study in the country involving whole-plant marijuana. "Unfortunately, all of the federal challenges make it very difficult, if not impossible, to conduct randomized trials," says Ken Gershman, manager of Colorado's program. So instead, the legislation was written to fund some clinical trials as well as observational trials that "don't require federal permission and federal marijuana," he notes, "but the methodology and design are more limited in what kind of conclusions can be drawn."

Gershman has talked to Sisley, just as he has talked to other prospective applicants. Until the information on how to apply for grants is posted, probably this week, "our job is to learn what's going on and to talk to all the players and learn what we can," he explains. And he learned plenty from Sisley: "It's impressive how well she's been able to navigate the federal labyrinth." Sisley was even going to speak about her study at the August 29 meeting, but that was canceled after it became clear that she would be applying for one of Colorado's grants. (Sisley will soon be in Colorado, anyway: She'll be speaking at the Marijuana for Medical Professionals Conference next week at the Sherman Street Events Center.)

Colorado's grant program is on the fast track; according to Gershman, the advisory committee will meet and score the finalist applications on November 21, then forward them to the state board of health so that the first grants can be awarded at the start of the new year.

Will Sisley make the cut? She'll be asking for about a million dollars — half the amount the state spent on its ludicrous "lab rat" campaign.

While she'd still like to have her study based in Arizona, where she lives with her family, partnering with Colorado looks attractive. "You're the only state that has real money," she says. Colorado is also the only state that has set up an official grants program and has a policy that backs faculty members doing responsible "marijuana-related research," outlined in a March 10 memo from University of Colorado president Bruce Benson to University of Colorado research faculty. Even so, she's concerned that her treatment by the UA has "scared the hell out of everyone at the University of Colorado," she says.

But like the veterans who are pushing her cause, Sisley's up for a fight. "I've never been beholden to these academics," she says. "I refuse to function that way. Why not collect some objective data? Don't we owe at least that to the veterans?"

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