For a controversial, but well-established, researcher and professor, a controversial termination that may halt a study on marijuana’s effects on PTSD patients.
When Sue Sisley, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Arizona, was notified by the university that her contract would not be renewed on June 27, medical marijuana advocates cried foul.
Legalization proponents argued that the professor was fired by the university because she was in favor of medical marijuana legalization, supported adding post-traumatic stress disorder as a qualifying condition to Arizona’s medical marijuana program, and was about to begin a federally-approved study that many believed would prove that marijuana contains medicinal benefits for PTSD sufferers.
Sisley said her abrupt dismissal from the university is proof that the educational institution is targeting her because of her marijuana-related work. She also speculated that the university likely received pressure from lawmakers to fire her, as she has testified across the country in favor of medical marijuana legalization legislation — much to the dismay of predominantly Republican lawmakers in the state who argue the drug has no medicinal value.
“This is a clear political retaliation for the advocacy and education I have been providing the public and lawmakers,” Sisley said about the letter she received informing her that her last day would be Sept. 26, 2014.
Chris Sigurdson, a university spokesman, said the university doesn’t comment on personnel issues, but insisted that the non-tenured clinical assistant professor was not let go because of her advocacy work and interest in medical marijuana. He added that the university is in favor of medical marijuana research, noting that the university approved Sisley’s PTSD study so that it could be conducted on campus.
However, Sisley said that in April, when the controversy over the marijuana study made national headlines, she was asked to explain to university officials what her political activities entailed.
“I pulled all my evaluations and this is not about my job performance,” she argued.
According to Sisley, Joe “Skip” Garcia, the University of Arizona’s senior vice president for health sciences, told her in April that if she didn’t provide a detailed account of her political activity, she wouldn’t have a job. The researcher also said her political activity was questioned by Arizona state Senate President Andy Biggs, who introduced an amendment to the state budget bill earlier this year that would have essentially barred any money being spent on marijuana research.
Biggs has denied that he questioned Sisley’s marijuana activism with the University of Arizona administration and government relations team, but said he did ask University of Arizona lobbyist Tim Bee if the study would have been funded from the state’s medical marijuana fee fund. He maintains that he never urged university officials to terminate the professor and researcher.
“The university obviously doesn’t want to touch this issue,” said Kathy Inman, state director of the Arizona chapter of the marijuana legalization advocacy group the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. “They don’t want to be publicly associated with the high-profile marijuana wave moving across the country and Arizona.”
Rep. Ethan Orr sponsored the bill that allocated funding for Sisley’s study. He is looking into Sisley’s dismissal from the university, because, he said, “If there is some kind of behind-the-scenes string pulling going on that curtails educational freedom, that’s just unacceptable.”
“Whether you’re for it or against it,” Orr said, “you need to medically study the impact of the drug and impairment levels, or else you can’t enforce these laws.”
Sisley said she is investigating whether she would be able to conduct the PTSD-medical marijuana study — which she spent five years working to obtain federal approval for — at another Arizona-based university or a university in another marijuana-friendly state. But she has expressed concern about how willing universities will be to hire her, as she has already been rejected from a few universities, including some that had previously commended her study and offered to help.
“Any university president is going to worry about taking me on,” she said. “Especially at a public university, where you have to rely on the good graces of the Legislature. These lawmakers hate me.”
Sisley explained that many “hyper-conservative lawmakers in Arizona are fundamentally opposed to marijuana research” and have “gone on record with reporters to say weed research is a strategy for achieving marijuana legalization.”
“They don’t want to see any universities resources going to support this work,” she said, explaining that this is why she believes the university caved to political pressure and let her go.
Although Sisley was told that the university’s decision to terminate her employment is final and “not subject to further administrative review,” Sisley has hired lawyer Jason Flores-Williams to file an administrative appeal in order to reinstate Sisley as an employee of the university.
“We can independently corroborate Dr. Sisley’s outstanding performance reviews and show that she was generally recognized as being one of the most respected teachers and doctors on staff,” Flores-Williams said.
“The ones who are being injured here are veterans, people who have already sued the country,” he continued, noting that this is one reason why Sisley is prepared to take the university to court if necessary.
If Sisley’s case does end up in court, she has a plethora of people ready to testify on her behalf, including Rick Doblin, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, the organization that was working with Sisley to obtain approval for the PTSD study.
On July 11, Doblin wrote a letter to Caroline Garcia, associate vice president for research at the University of Arizona, urging her to seriously consider reinstating Sisley, “an exemplary physician,” as firing Sisley only “postpone[s] research into a treatment with potentially beneficial contributions to the health of our veterans and others suffering from PTSD.”
“Dr. Sisley has a genuine passion for researching marijuana as a possible treatment for PTSD and a long track record providing clinical care to our vets with PTSD,” Doblin wrote. “She is also an expert and an educator about the range of medical uses of marijuana.
“MAPS has successfully partnered with Dr. Sisley on our study for many years as we have struggled for and obtained regulatory approval. She is uniquely qualified to be the Principal Investigator to conduct this study in a methodologically rigorous manner. MAPS will continue to partner with Dr. Sisley through our next challenge to secure a supportive home for this crucial work, ideally still at the University of Arizona.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has also expressed support for Sisley, as has the marijuana legalization advocacy group the Marijuana Policy Project, which has launched a campaign to put the legalization of recreational marijuana on the ballot in Arizona in 2016.