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

July 3, 2014 | 9:21 am
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

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.