GOP State Senator Defends Marijuana Researcher Fired by the University of Arizona

, , former deputy director, Center for Science & Democracy | July 3, 2014, 9:21 am EDT
Bookmark and Share

Arizona State Senator Ethan Orr (R-Tucson) is defending Suzanne Sisley, a University of Arizona marijuana researcher who was abruptly fired on Friday. Dr. Sisley claims that although no reason was given for her dismissal, university administrators confronted her earlier this year after she was highly critical of other state legislators who had blocked state funding of her research.

Marines march in the 2011 New York City Veterans Day Parade

Some leaders are raising concerns about academic freedom after a University of Arizona marijuana researcher was fired last week. The researcher had publicly criticized state legislators who had blocked funding for her research on the effects of marijuana use among veterans suffering from PTSD. Photo: DVIDSHUB/Flickr

Dr. Sisley obtained federal government approval in March to examine the potential effects of cannabis use by veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress. As medical marijuana laws have been relaxed in some states and other states consider similar measures, it’s important to continue to improve our understanding of the risks and benefits of the drug.

Scientific research related to marijuana is highly regulated. Over the years, research on the public health effects of marijuana has met similar ideological opposition as research on the public health effects of guns. Some legislators suspect that cannabis research is simply a tool to legitimize marijuana legalization.

“I would never have had to be an activist if it wasn’t for the fact that this study was blocked at every turn,” Dr. Sisley told me over the phone.  “It’s a really sad day, especially for our veterans who have been fighting alongside me.”

But both Republicans and Democrats have realized the importance of access to reliable scientific information to make fully informed decisions on how to manage public health and safety.

“This is something that, with the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act and possibly recreational use after 2016, we need as much research as possible,” Orr told the Arizona Capitol Times. “Whether you’re for it or against it, you need to medically study the impact of the drug and impairment levels, or else you can’t enforce these laws.”

Dr. Sisley stressed to me the independence of the research. “I’ve never tried marijuana,” she said. “I’m a lifelong Republican. I’m not part of the marijuana industry. It’s a triple blind study with [Institutional Review Board] approval. There’s no way to fudge the numbers.”

University government relations officers implied to Dr. Sisley that her research was the reason that the University of Arizona budget was not fully funded this year.

Sisley said that while she’s received several invitations to pursue the research in Colorado and in other places, she remains committed to her hometown. “I graduated from the U of A medical school,” she told me. “I’m a Wildcat for life. If they would just reinstate my academic appointment and allow the research to move forward, I would be completely satisfied. It’s all about helping these vets.”

More will come out, I imagine, over the next few days.

Posted in: Science and Democracy, Scientific Integrity Tags: , , ,

Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.

Show Comments

Comment Policy

UCS welcomes comments that foster civil conversation and debate. To help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion, please focus comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand, and refrain from personal attacks. Posts that are commercial, self-promotional, obscene, rude, or disruptive will be removed.

Please note that comments are open for two weeks following each blog post. UCS respects your privacy and will not display, lend, or sell your email address for any reason.

  • Today, July 9, 2014, Will Humble, the Director of Arizona’s medical marijuana program, approved PTSD as a qualifying condition for receiving medical marijuana. The justification for a controlled study is even clearer now and the UArizona’s firing of Dr. Sisley is even more outrageous. Here’s an article about this new development:

  • Christine Miller suggests that the first step prior to conducting human studies into the use of marijuana in treating PTSD would be to conduct animal studies. If only Christine had bothered to read MAPS and Dr. Sisley’s marijuana/PTSD protocol, posted for free download on the MAPS website, she could have read our review of the pre-existing animal literature which in the eyes of the FDA, the UArizona IRB and the US Public Health Service (PHS) protocol reviewers were sufficient to justify our human study. Pages 8-10 of the
    protocol itself (located on pages 12-14 of the PDF) are a review
    of the pharmacological trials in animal models. The protocol is located at:

    Even if there were no
    pre-existing animal studies suggesting possible benefits of
    cannabinoids in treating PTSD, the widespread use of marijuana by
    vets and others with PTSD would still be sufficient justification
    for a controlled study in humans.

    MAPS has published a series of studies in the scientific literature about novel approaches to treating PTSD, specifically MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. MAPS and Sue Sisley are fully capable of conducting a study that passes FDA audit and the peer-review process of a journal indexed on Medline.

    Christine says that she is a scientist and is skeptical of the benefits and persuaded of the risks associated with the use of marijuana in treating patients with PTSD. Rather than trying to block the conduct of the first blinded, controlled study ever to be conducted with marijuana in PTSD patients, I would think that her appreciation for scientific data would result in her supporting our study rather than trying to block it from taking place and applauding the UArizona for firing Sue in an attempt to prevent the study from taking place.

    Our study will use five different potencies of marijuana containing various amounts of THC and CBD. Unfortunately, though the PHS reviewers approved our access to NIDA marijuana on March 12, 2014 (after initially rejecting the study on September 16, 2011), NIDA does not have the marijuana we need with sufficient amounts of CBD, despite claims more than three years before that it did have the marijuana we designed to use in our study. NIDA now claims that we must wait till about January 2015 before NIDA can provide us with the marijuana at their cost, which they refuse to tell us. The NIDA monopoly on marijuana that can be used on FDA-regulated research is a fundamental obstruction of privately-funded medical marijuana drug development research.

    Despite the evidence Christine Miller cites to justify her objection to our study taking place for fear of harm coming to subjects who volunteer for our study, I wonder if her objections are actually motivated by an even greater fear- that being that our study might actually generate evidence that marijuana can indeed be helpful in reducing PTSD symptoms in some substantial number of subjects.

    The UArizona firing of Dr. Sue Sisley does complicate our efforts
    to conduct this study. Nevertheless, MAPS and Dr. Sisley are committed to generating
    scientific data from a methodologically rigorous study regarding the use
    of marijuana for veterans with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD. We
    will report whatever data is generated by the study.

  • Sean

    Christine, my name is Sean, a Veteran suffering from PTSD. I never used Marijuana before my diagnoses. It has made a very big difference in my life to the positive, and my networking with other Veterans has reassured me that my anecdotal example is one of many. I respect your advocating your position, and was wondering what your expertise is with regards to Veterans with PTSD using marijuana to alleviate symptoms. Thanks in advance for your answer, I await your reply.

  • Michael Halpern

    Christine, the point I’m making here isn’t about who is doing the best science related to marijuana use and PTSD. That should be left to the researchers with relevant expertise. I do know that Dr. Sisley’s research project had IRB and government approval, and am not sure what evidence you can provide for your assertion that she is not fully capable of carrying out that research.

    This post made no claims on findings, but defended the principle of freedom of inquiry, period. I’m sure you’re painfully aware of how difficult it is to get marijuana-related studies funded and approved. In addition, we know there was significant political opposition to the research in the Arizona state senate. Ultimately, if we find out that the university fired Dr. Sisley because of pressure from legislators opposed to her research and her activism around that research, we should all condemn the university for caving, and the legislators for exacting the pound of flesh.

    Experts should determine what projects have the most merit and the conditions under which those projects should be carried out to ensure both scientific integrity and protection of the rights of research subjects. Politicians should not be picking and choosing research studies based on whether they think the research will support their own policy preferences, and certainly should not be looking for ways to retaliate against scientists who speak up to defend themselves.


    • Christine

      Is it not possible that political pressure may have been behind the original approval of her project by the FDA, given the lack of supportive literature and the abundance of literature pointing toward potential harm? As a scientist, I can tell you that the best place to start with pharmacological trials is with animal models, or failing a good animal model, “naturalistic” studies where those who use the drug by choice are followed and compared to controls. Pending the outcome of that work, interventional trials can be contemplated.

      The evidence that I can provide for her not having the credentials to carry out the research is her utter lack of peer-reviewed scientific research publications, the metric by which all research scientists are measured. For Dr. Sisley to be proposing such a risky study without having first demonstrated her research credentials in a less risky endeavor is not how biomedical science progresses in a safe manner. If she feels strongly that marijuana use has already benefited some of her patients through their own self-medication, why has she not published the results as case histories and/or compared them to her PTSD patients who don’t use the drug?

      • Stel1776

        An animal study on the effects of cannabis on PTSD would not be very meaningful to human populations one way or another.

  • Christine

    Perhaps the Union of Concerned Scientists should wonder about the current science behind marijuana use by PTSD patients, i.e. science that has been published in peer-reviewed journals (Dr. Sisley has no peer-reviewed publications of any relevance to PTSD). The VA has found that PTSD patients who use cannabis have a worse outcome than those that don’t (see Dr. Bonn-Miller’s work). PTSD patients are already more vulnerable to panic attacks, and marijuana is known to increase the odds of developing a panic disorder (Zvolensky et al., 2010). Lessers forms of anxiety are also increased by marijuana use (Hayatbakhsh
    et al.,2007). Psychosis has been triggered in PTSD patients by this drug (Pierre,2010), not dissimilar to what is reported for its effects in previously healthy individuals (Kuepper et al., 2011).

    PTSD patients are an extremely vulnerable populations, and Dr. Sisley has not demonstrated herself capable of conducting well-controlled clinical studies of any kind that would lead to an outcome of benefit to this patient population or to the science of medicine.

    • Stel1776

      It is varieties low in CBD (cannabidiol) that can trigger anxiety and panic. In addition to a tremedous amount of anecdotal evidence, there have been some studies showing its effectiveness in treating PTSD:

      Cannabis is associated with reductions in PTSD symptoms in some patients
      Greer et al. PTSD symptom reports of patients evaluated for the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program. J Psychoactive Drugs. 2014.

      The [THC] intervention caused a statistically significant improvement in global symptom severity, sleep quality, frequency of nightmares, and PTSD hyperarousal symptoms.
      CONCLUSIONS: Orally absorbable delta9-THC was safe and well tolerated by patients with chronic PTSD.

      Roitman et al. Preliminary, Open-Label, Pilot Study of Add-On Oral ?(9)-Tetrahydrocannabinol in Chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Clin Drug Investig. 2014.

      If cannabis caused psychosis in the general population then varying rates of cannabis usage over time in the U.S. and other countries should have a corresponding change in rates of psychosis in those countries, but they have not. Also there is no correlation of cannabis usage rates with rates of psychosis when comparing these rates for various countries throughout the world.

      The most parsimonious explanation of the results reported here are that the schizophrenia/psychoses data presented here are valid and the causal models linking cannabis with schizophrenia/psychoses are not supported by this study.
      Frisher et al. Assessing the impact of cannabis use on trends in diagnosed schizophrenia in the United Kingdom from 1996 to 2005. Schizophr Res. 2009.

      Cannabis use does not appear to be causally related to the incidence of schizophrenia…
      Degenhardt L, Hall W, Lynskey M. Testing hypotheses about the relationship between cannabis use and psychosis. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2003.

      The current data do not support low to moderate lifetime cannabis use to be a major contributor to psychosis or poor social and role functioning in high-risk youth
      Auther et al. Prospective study of cannabis use in adolescents at clinical high risk for psychosis: impact on conversion to psychosis and functional outcome. Psychol Med. 2012.

      This study found that alcohol may contribute to psychosis, but not cannabis:

      Results revealed that low use of alcohol, but neither cannabis use nor tobacco use at baseline, contributed to the prediction of psychosis in the CHR sample
      Buchy L, Perkins D, Woods SW, Liu L, Addington J. Impact of substance use on conversion to psychosis in youth at clinical high risk of psychosis. Schizophr Res. 2014.

      There is almost always another explanation for an association between cannabis and psychosis:

      The results of the current study suggest that having an increased familial morbid risk for schizophrenia may be the underlying basis for schizophrenia in cannabis users and not cannabis use by itself.
      Proal et al. A controlled family study of cannabis users with and without psychosis. Schizophr Res. 2014.

      these findings suggest that part of the association between schizophrenia and cannabis is due to a shared genetic aetiology
      Power et al. Genetic predisposition to schizophrenia associated with increased use of cannabis. Molecular Psychiatry. 2014.

      Cannabis helps some people with schizophrenia. Varieties high in cannabidiol (CBD) can treat and prevent it:

      Additionally, CBD prevented human experimental psychosis and was effective in open case reports and clinical trials in patients with schizophrenia with a remarkable safety profile…These results support the idea that CBD may be a future therapeutic option in psychosis, in general and in schizophrenia, in particular.
      Zuardi et al. A critical review of the antipsychotic effects of cannabidiol: 30 years of a translational investigation. Curr Pharm Des. 2012. Review.

      …but cannabidiol displayed a markedly superior side-effect profile. Moreover, cannabidiol treatment was accompanied by a significant increase in serum anandamide levels, which was significantly associated with clinical improvement. The results suggest that inhibition of anandamide deactivation may contribute to the antipsychotic effects of cannabidiol potentially representing a completely new mechanism in the treatment of schizophrenia.
      Leweke et al. Cannabidiol enhances anandamide signaling and alleviates psychotic symptoms of schizophrenia. Translational Psychiatry 2012.

      Effect size differences in cognitive performance in the schizophrenia group as a function of cannabis use were in the small to medium range, denoting superior performance in cannabis-using patients.
      Rabin RA. The effects of cannabis use on neurocognition in schizophrenia: a meta-analysis. Schizophr Res. 2011.

      Correlation does not imply causality. There are many factors involved, including the fact that many with schizophrenia are self-medicating with cannabis.

      • Christine

        Thanks for the detailed post. Here is a response to (almost) all of your points-

        1) “It is varieties low in CBD (cannabidiol) that can trigger anxiety and panic”It seems kind of foolish to me to rely on yet a second drug (cannabidiol) to counteract the effects of the primary drug (THC).

        2) The first study you cite: “Cannabis is associated with reductions in PTSD symptoms in some patients”Greer et al. PTSD symptom reports of patients evaluated for the New Mexico Medical Cannabis
        Program. J Psychoactive Drugs. 2014. “ is not available in my library, so I can’t comment on the article. The journal itself has a very low impact factor (1.17 in 2012).

        3) The second study you cite involved a very small number of patients on other psychotropic medication, to which THC was
        administered as add-on therapy. Their positive results are interesting, but the study was very short term (3 weeks), which is
        a problem because the increases in anxiety reported by other researchers tend to emerge after longer term use. Other results are not supported by prior literature , in particular the positive effects on sleep quality are not supported by the consistently negative effects on REM sleep in several studies (reviewed by Schierenbeck T, Riemann D, Berger M, Hornyak M Effect of illicit recreational drugs upon sleep: cocaine, ecstasy and marijuana. Sleep Med Rev.
        2008;12(5):381-9. REM is the portion of sleep that is most important to cognition, learning and memory.

        4) As for the frequently made point: “If cannabis caused psychosis in the general population then varying rates of cannabis usage over time in the U.S. and other countries should have a corresponding change in rates of psychosis in those countries, but they have not.”, I can only say that no one was counting the rates of schizophrenia during the time period of transition between low marijuana use (pre-1960’s) to high marijuana use (mid-1970’s). If you know of a study that covered that period, please post it, I have been looking.

        5) Frisher’s study plotted the schizophrenia incidence and prevalence, but did not plot the corresponding cannabis use data,
        they merely cited another paper (Hickman et al., 2007) and stated that there was a consistent rise in cannabis use during the relevant time period. In fact, there were variations in use by the age group most at risk during that time and no effort was made to correlate the
        trends (see Table 1 of Hickman et al).

        6) The Degenhardt et al. paper makes the opposite mistake – it reports cannabis use rates, but no data is presented for schizophrenia (they just assume that a change would somehow have been noticed –but because a minority of the population smoked cannabis regularly, a doubling of the risk for schizophrenia in that group might have led to at most a 30 % increase in schizophrenia in the population as a whole and I can guarantee you
        that Australia was not conducting any epidemiology at that time to pick up that increase.

        7) The Proal et al. study you cite actually revealed a difference in the genetic risk for schizophrenia between cannabis using schizophrenics and nonusers (the genetic loading was lower in the users,pointing towards an environmental factor at play), but the study was underpowered to determine if the 40% difference Corrwas significant or not. The sample size needed to be larger.

        8) Cannabidiol may have some protective effects for psychosis, but is not an effective antipsychotic all by itself. And again, why take one drug that triggers psychosis (THC) and hope that another ingredient (cannabidiol) will counteract its effect? THC, by the way, has been shown to trigger psychosis in controlled laboratory studies of healthy human subjects (D’Souza et al., 2004; Morrison et al., 2011 Bhattacharyya et al., 2012).

        9) Your statement “correlation does not imply causation” is what the tobacco companies used to say about cigarette smoking
        and lung cancer. Correlation does not yet constitute proof, but the huge number of studies showing a correlation (see a 2007 review by Moore et al. in Lancet) means that the association cannot be ignored and causation needs to be conclusively ruled out before this drug is deemed safe for mental health. No study has come close to doing that.

      • Stel1776

        I find it very odd that any true scientist would not support the study of a medicinal herb that is perhaps our oldest known medicine, dating back thousands of years. Of course there are those who claim to be scientists but let financial incentive or strong arming from their employers get in the way.