Without warning last July, Sue Sisley — a physician specializing in internal medicine and psychiatry — was asked to leave her position as a member of the faculty in excellent standing at her alma mater, the University of Arizona. She was never given any semblance of due process or any reason why she was being let go. She was simply stripped of the three contracts she held with the university — the same university where she received her M.D.., was honored with the Leo B. Hart Humanitarian award and was a generous donor — and asked to leave.
But the likely reasons behind Dr. Sisley’s termination aren’t too mysterious. She was slated to lead the first ever U.S.-based, independent clinical research study of marijuana as a potential medicine. As the herb remains listed amongst the most dangerous drugs according to the government’s scheduling criteria, the study’s green light (which came only after members of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies or MAPS and others worked for more than a decade to get it through the stringent approval process) was contentious in the university’s conservative home state. Dr. Sisley has said she thinks her personal political outspokenness, coupled with the nature of her intended work, led a prominent politician to pressure the university for her removal.
“This is a clear political retaliation for the advocacy and education I have been providing the public and lawmakers,” Dr. Sisley told the LA Times last year. “I pulled all my evaluations and this is not about my job performance.”
The study, which has finally been approved by all the necessary government agencies and boards, intends to assess the safety and efficacy of cannabis use to mitigate symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for military veterans.
Dr. Sisley has already found a group of 76 veterans who are ready and willing to participate in the study. They are veterans from all over the country who have been unable to successfully tackle the severe mental torment that PTSD delivers in the form of nightmares, traumatic flashbacks, insomnia, disassociation, anxiety and depression. Like many of the 21.8 million or more people who have returned from war zones to the U.S., the would-be study participants have all found their Veterans’ Affairs (VA) prescribed pharmaceuticals to be either ineffectual, or ridden with severe side effects that cause even worse mental unrest than the PTSD they’re prescribed to treat. They are, unfortunately, emblematic of many U.S. veterans — at least 22 of whom commit suicide every single day according to VA statistics.
Dr. Sisley told me in an interview last 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.”
“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,” she said.
When Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s CNN special, Weed 3, premiered on Sunday, it featured Dr. Sisley, and her struggle to get the PTSD study off the ground. Sisley said she doesn’t know how long her portion of the segment is, but she’s had a video crew following her since she was fired last year.
“They’ve been with us about eight months now,” she said. Gupta recently released an article about the premier in the title of which he declared, “It’s time for a medical marijuana revolution,” listing the PTSD study as part of that revolution’s emergence.
“In Weed 3, we are eyewitnesses to a revolution in full swing,” he wrote. “You will ride along with us for the dawn of the first federally approved clinical study on the use of marijuana for PTSD. You will meet patients such as Sean Kiernan, an accomplished investment banker, and Amelia Taylor, a stay-at-home mom. They are the remarkable and surprising faces of this revolution — smart, successful and suffering — unwilling to accept the fact that commonly prescribed medications often used to treat PTSD can be worse than the underlying disorder itself.”
Sisley regularly treats first responders and military veterans, many of whom have some form of PTSD. After years observing and speaking with patients she learned that many were using marijuana to successfully manage their symptoms. The self-described “lifelong Republican who has never tried an illicit drug and doesn’t drink,” became curious to know why and how cannabis was helping so many of her patients. When she considered studying cannabis to learn more about it, she discovered the same research blockade that has effectively prevented any scientific study of cannabis for more than 40 years.
Her curiosity led her to Rick Doblin, the executive director of the California-based nonprofit MAPS, which has sought for 15 years to complete federally sanctioned clinical marijuana research. However, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) — which has a DEA-protected monopoly on the only legal supply of cannabis for use in FDA-regulated research — has failed to sell them the cannabis required for a study.
Doblin and Sisley worked to develop the PTSD study, slating Sisley as principal investigator. After years of back and forth, the study’s protocols were approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The Public Health Service also approved the protocols last March, which was the last step before NIDA was required to sell their cannabis to the researchers.
Sisley’s research also received a $2 million grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment last November.
However, Sisley says part of the final hurdle is attaining all the necessary strains of cannabis for the study. NIDA reported recently that they only have three of the four phenotypes originally requested in 2011. The agency recently sent Sisley and Doblin an email implying that the researchers would have to either use the substandard hybrid that they’d developed (which Sisley said is “not even close” to the strain requested), or wait for another growth cycle. She said NIDA has refused to say how long a normal government grow cycle is, but a usual grow cycle for the plant is about three months.
Sisley said the researchers may choose to accept the lower quality strain due to the urgent need to get the study underway and begin collecting objective data on marijuana use. Since the University will no longer be its host, the study is currently seeking a location in the Scottsdale or Phoenix areas.
The study already received approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the University of Arizona, but since Sisley was fired it requires a new IRB approval. While Sisley will treat half the study subjects, Ryan Vandrey, PhD will treat the other half at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. The study will also require clearance from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) once the marijuana has a delivery date, but according to MAPS this shouldn’t be a difficult step in the process.
After losing her job, and becoming a bit of a public figure — which comes with both positives and negatives — Sisley says the bond she has formed with the veterans she plans to work with is what carried her through following her termination, and is what inspires her to continue to fight to get the historic research underway.
“The only victory for scientific freedom is to persevere and get this study implemented, finally,” she said. “That would be a real victory for scientific freedom. I feel a really strong bond with these vets, and it’s crystallized since my firing. After being terminated, I felt a tremendous amount of affection from these guys and a very deep devotion from them.”
Sisley said she receives countless emails, voicemails, Facebook messages and texts from vets — and some active duty military members — all over the world encouraging her to pursue this research. Because so many veterans have found relief via cannabis that no other medicine could provide, there is a global movement building amongst vets to legalize and study medical marijuana. Sisley said many of the notes she receives are from vets who are suffering from PTSD but are afraid to try marijuana, because of the lack of scientific research.
“They don’t understand how it works, and don’t want to try something unless a doctor recommends it,” she said. “They know that it could possibly make them worse.”
Sisley shared a couple of notes from veterans that she said had a particularly strong impact for her.
One is from a marine veteran named Ryan, based in Colorado. He wrote:
“We support you Doc! We need this PTSD study. My brothers and sisters are suffering and maybe your PTSD research can shed some light on a new treatment. Anything you need, ANYTHING, me and my group of veterans are at your disposal. You just say the word Doc! You’re a warrior like us. Truth stands! Veterans love you!”
The second note she shared was from an active duty soldier named Brian, stationed at a U.S. army base in Seoul Korea. He wrote:
“Thank you for all the bullshit you’ve been putting up with for us vets, it means a lot. I’ve already got PTSD and nothing they’ve offered me so far has helped. You’ve shown greater bravery and leadership than a lot of military officers out here on active duty. We’ll follow you to the end Doc!”
Sisley even has a fan page on Facebook called “Veterans for Sue Sisley MD and PTSD Research.”
While there are still a few barriers to overcome, thanks to Sisley’s unyielding determination we are closer than ever to seeing real, objective, scientific research on a long-vilified plant that has the potential to save countless lives.