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Researcher leading PTSD-pot study loses job

Jul. 14, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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A researcher who has been instrumental in developing a study on the potential effectiveness of marijuana for treating post-traumatic stress disorder has lost her job at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

Dr. Sue Sisley, an internist and psychiatrist with the school’s telemedicine program, was told in June her contract would not be renewed. She received an automatic 90-day extension through September to look for another position.

Sisley has hired an attorney and intends to appeal her termination. Her attorney, Jason Flores, said she has concerns that the firing will delay the study and have a “deleterious effect on veterans.”

“We hope ... that Dr. Sisley will be reinstated so we can continue to work and help veterans,” Flores said.

In March, the Health and Human Services Department approved a protocol designed by Sisley and sponsor Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies to study whether cannabis helps ease PTSD symptoms.

While some states have approved medical marijuana for PTSD, the plant’s effectiveness for treating the disorder has never been scientifically vetted in the U.S.

Sisley believes her termination is related to her research. Citing opposition in the Arizona state legislature in April to a bill that would have allowed the state to use its medical marijuana fund to support her research, Sisley said she believes the school does not want to cross state lawmakers.

“Much to the disappointment of the GOP-controlled legislature in Arizona, the public approved, through a legal referendum, medical marijuana. And [lawmakers] are still deeply resentful,” she said.

The Sisley-MAPS study is to last for three months, with 70 veterans with combat-related PTSD receiving the equivalent of two joints a day — 0.9 grams of marijuana — to smoke or inhale by vaporization.

Chris Sigurdson, a University of Arizona spokesman, said Sisley’s dismissal would not affect the study’s timing. He added that the university has contacted MAPS and has another principal investigator in mind to lead the study.

He declined to comment specifically on Sisley’s case because it is a personnel matter, but said the decision to terminate any contract at the university “should not be construed as commentary on a person’s performance or failure.”

He denied that the school has received any political pressure to terminate any employee and noted that the school has been proactive in lobbying for the right to conduct marijuana research on campus.

MAPS Executive Director Rick Doblin wrote University of Arizona administrators urging them to reconsider Sisley’s contract. Noting the study would not exist without Sisley’s guidance, Doblin called her an “exemplary physician.”

“Dr. Sisley has a genuine passion for researching marijuana as a possible treatment for PTSD and a long track record providing clinical care to vets with PTSD. She is also an expert and an educator about the range of medical uses of marijuana,” he wrote.

The study already has been placed on hold while MAPS waits for the National Institute of Drug Abuse to grow the marijuana needed for the research.

As part of the research requirements from the federal government, MAPS must buy Drug Enforcement Agency-licensed marijuana, which is controlled by NIDA. That agency does not currently have in stock the pot containing the potency of tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol needed for the research.

According to NIDA, the marijuana may be ready by January, but that is not certain. “We are targeting to obtain the cannabis varieties that you are looking for but it is too early to commit their availability in advance,” a NIDA official wrote in an email to MAPS.

MAPS spokesman Brad Burge said that whatever the outcome of Sisley’s appeal, the study will continue, but not with an alternate investigator and not at the University of Arizona. He said the plan is to move it to a separate study site with at least half the 70 veteran participants recruited from Colorado.■

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