Why Did a University Fire a Govt-Approved Marijuana Researcher With No Explanation?


The University of Arizona has fired Sue Sisley, a researcher in the psychiatry department, without warning or explanation. Sisley planned to lead a clinical study of marijuana as treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans and UA had agreed to play host.

The study recently became the first to receive approval from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) to obtain government-approved pot for research—a historic decision that broke the institute’s track record of blocking all independent pot studies. The study’s protocols were already approved by the FDA three years ago as well as by the University of Arizona Institutional Review Board (IRB).  

The study is sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which has been trying to get a scientific study of pot approved for decades. In an LA Times article, Rick Doblin, director of MAPS, called firing Sisley a “repression of science.”

“What happened here is the repression of science for political purposes,” he said. “It is astonishing in this day and age."

MAPS, alongside the American Civil Liberties Union, is looking into ways to overturn Sisley’s termination.

Sisley has been vocal in recent months about the importance of US policy change when it comes to medical marijuana and she told the LA Times she thinks her termination has everything to do with her research and “personal political crusading.” She said she suspects she drew the attention of Republicans who control university funding.

“This is a clear political retaliation for the advocacy and education I have been providing the public and lawmakers,” Sisley told the Times. “I pulled all my evaluations and this is not about my job performance.”

As a psychiatrist and physician focused on internal medicine, Sisley regularly treats first responders and military veterans with PTSD. After years observing and speaking with patients she learned many of them were using marijuana to successfully manage their symptoms. Sisley was excited at the opportunity to conduct the PTSD study, which would look at cannabis’ effect on 12 treatment-resistant combat veterans with PTSD.  

Sisley told AlterNet in February that the need for psychiatrists to better understand and treat PTSD is dire, “not just for combat vets but for all our citizens who are plagued by this.” Sisley noted that 22 veterans kill themselves per day in the U.S. according to statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs.  

“Any physician who’s also a human being can’t rest when we know that there's something out there, in this case a plant, that has the potential to reduce human suffering.”

Letters from the UA informed Sisley on Friday that her relationship with the university would be over come September 26, according to the Times.

The Times article notes that “[t]he letters offered no explanation beyond citing university guidelines which permit the administration to end its relationship with contract employees.”

Sisley received a memo from Stuart Flynn, dean of UA’s College of Medicine that stated:

“In accordance with those policies, my decision is final and is not subject to further administrative review.”

When contacted via email, the University of Arizona did not comment on its reasons for terminating Sisley.

AlterNet contacted Flynn directly via email and the message was forwarded to George Humphrey, vice president of the Arizona Health Sciences Center Office of Public Affairs.

“Sorry, but the University of Arizona does not comment on personnel issues,” Humphrey wrote. “However, you should know that the UA has not received political pressure to terminate any employee. Also in 2013, the UA championed state legislation to ensure that universities could perform medical marijuana research on campus.”

In response to a follow up question asking whether the university would ever terminate someone because of their political activism and/or the nature of their research, Humphrey wrote:

“I’ve spoken with the head of human resources and, to their knowledge, the UA has never terminated someone for violating our political activities policy. It is conceivably possible, though. We would not terminate someone for the nature of their research. The University ends dozens of contracts each year that have nothing to do with behavior or performance. “

He did not respond to a follow up question asking whether any pressures or political conflicts within the university led to Sisley's termination.

According to the LA Times, Sisley “lobbied state lawmakers” to use state funds collected from medical marijuana dispensaries for the study. When Republican Senator Kimberly Yee attempted to block  those funds, supporters of Sisley’s work launched an “unsuccessful recall effort,” according to the LA Times.

As the Times article notes:

“Sisley said she did not get involved, but that university officials were irate when some activists she described as ‘overzealous’ put the university logo on one of their political flyers. Sisley said a university vice president ordered her to draft a statement outlining all her political activism, which she did.”

Sisley told the Times, “I didn’t even support the recall.  I thought it was a waste of energy.”

Sisley also said she is concerned that other public universities, which rely on state funding, will be wary of hiring her. She told the Times even if she is hired elsewhere, the study has been delayed once again. She said she had to work for months to convince UA’s independent research board to green light the study in the first place, and suspects would have to do the same in a new location.

“Any university president is going to worry about taking me on,” she told the Times. “Especially at a public university, where you have to rely on the good graces of the Legislature. These lawmakers hate me.

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