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Pot Researcher Firing Unleashes Rising Veteran Backlash

Backers of fired pot researcher Dr. Sue Sisley argue her dismissal reveals the forces blocking marijuana from reaching the medical mainstream.
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A physician with federal approval to test if pot can treat PTSD became a scientist without a lab Tuesday after the University of Arizona refused to reverse her firing, and her private funders vowed to move her study to another college.

But the termination of Dr. Sue Sisley already was fueling a larger backlash.

Some of Sisley’s supporters argue her dismissal embodies barriers that have long blocked marijuana from the medical mainstream. Those obstacles include, her backers say, a federal “monopoly” that chooses which scientists can investigate cannabis — and controls the price for exam-grade pot.

Sisley’s loudest fans are veterans who see hope in her planned study. They include Ricardo Pereyda, an Arizona alumnus diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder after serving in Iraq. His online petition, dubbing Sisley’s firing “immoral and unpatriotic,” has amassed nearly 100,000 signatures.

Sisley herself sees irony in her own tale. She asserts that conservative state lawmakers in Arizona pushed the state-funded university to dump her. Yet, Sisley is a Republican who has never tried weed, she said, and admits she’s “not sold” on its efficacy.

“I’m pretty right wing. But these guys (in Arizona politics) hate marijuana research and have systematically tried to impede this because they believe it’s a strategy for promoting marijuana legalization,” Sisley told NBC News.

“People are painting me like I have an agenda. But I’m just persuaded the drug has enough merit to deserve to be studied in a rigorous, controlled environment. I only care about doing quality science,” she said.

At the University of Arizona, officials declined to discuss why Sisley’s faculty position was not renewed, calling it a “personnel matter.” They denied politics played a role.

“We have invested a lot of time and staff hours (in the Sisley study). We’d like to see the research continue here,” said Chris Sigurdson, a university spokesman. “This is the kind of research we do to expand knowledge and look for innovative research and cures.”

But Sisley’s private funders, a Santa Cruz, California, nonprofit — the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) — confirmed Tuesday it will hunt for a new home for the study, adding: “Were it not for Dr. Sisley’s efforts, this research would not exist.”

Sisley’s scientific plan was approved in March by the U.S. Department of Health and Human services. MAPS will buy research-grade cannabis for Sisley from the lone federal agency allowed to disperse it — the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Sisley, thus, becomes the first U.S. researcher “with a goal of developing the marijuana plant in smoked form into an FDA-approved prescription medicine,” said Rick Doblin, executive director of MAPS.

But her termination, Doblin added, also reveals the barriers that keep Sisley’s study the “only medical marijuana drug-development research currently being attempted in the U.S. ... despite there being a potential megabillion-dollar medical market.”

Those barriers, Doblin contends, include the “NIDA monopoly.”

That agency, part of National Institutes of Health, is authorized to grow research-grade marijuana at a University of Mississippi farm, then ship cannabis to federally approved scientists.

But NIDA sets pot prices for private researchers, Doblin said. When he last asked that price “several years ago,” NIDA quoted him $7 per gram. (By comparison, one Israeli research-pot producer offers marijuana to scientists at $1 per gram.)

Further, NIDA has a legal boundary that cements its “monopoly” status, Doblin asserts.

“NIDA is not authorized to provide marijuana for sale as an FDA-approved prescription medicine,” Doblin said. “No pharmaceutical company, profit or nonprofit, would conduct expensive, multimillion-dollar … studies with a drug, like marijuana, that cannot be sold as a prescription medicine.

“The NIDA monopoly has to end,” Doblin added.

According to NIDA officials, however, the agency has accepted 16 of 18 applications received since 1999 from privately funded U.S. researchers seeking research-grade pot.

Those 16 approvals — including Sisley — all had received HHS endorsements. Their work includes scrutinizing pot in people with HIV, diabetes and multiple sclerosis.

“Because NIDA manages the University of Mississippi farm contract, many people assume that NIDA controls who gets marijuana for research. This is inaccurate,” said Dr. Jack Stein, director of NIDA’s Office of Science Policy and Communications. “There is a three-step process that involves several federal agencies (including the Drug Enforcement Administration). NIDA would not decline to provide marijuana for a study that has successfully completed these requirements.”

Sisley may have HHS approval but she calls federal restrictions the top “hurdle” to good science.

She also admits feeling a sense of urgency — hundreds of veterans have told her that pot helps control their PTSD symptoms, including depression, she said.

“It’s so sad that it requires political courage to do an FDA randomized control trial,” Sisley said. “This isn’t like some stoner saying, ‘I want to do research.’ This involves blinded, independent investigators just trying to collect objective data.”

Further, she knows from her conversations with ex-troops, PTSD contributes to an ongoing veteran suicide crisis.

“The firing of Dr. Sue Sisley by the University of Arizona is an absolute abomination,” said retired Marine and Iraq veteran Sean Azzariti, 32, who lives near Denver. He was diagnosed with PTSD and signed the online petition. "It's a disgusting, last-ditch effort by cannabis opponents to stall much-needed research."

The research "should be fast-tracked, not bogged down by politics and bigotry. Let the science speak for itself," said Pereyda, the veteran behind the online protest. "Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day — unfortunately many more will die before the research is conducted."