Weed Warrior

Written by Suzanne Heyn Category: People Issue: February 2015
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Dr. Suzanne Sisley is an unlikely crusader for medical marijuana. But she's determined to study the effects of cannabis on PTSD in veterans, at almost any cost.

Dr. Suzanne Sisley’s emails are relentless. They’re often long, arrive in rapid succession, and include a sunflower icon in the signature, following the words, “Thanks! Take care.”

The breezy sign-off belies Sisley’s feistiness – and knack for stirring controversy. The Scottsdale psychiatrist and internist made national headlines last summer when she was fired from the University of Arizona, her medical school alma mater, while pursuing controversial research. Later, the Maricopa County Medical Society removed her from its board of officers for making unflattering comments about a former board colleague to local media. Undaunted – and with help from Johns Hopkins University and the state of Colorado – Sisley vows to continue her study, which will be the first controlled trial examining the potential benefits of marijuana on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans.

It took four years to secure approvals for the trial, but three months after federal health officials finally signed off, UA terminated all of Sisley’s contracts, citing shifting directions in the telemedicine program where she worked and anticipating the end of a grant to teach doctors statewide about medical marijuana rules. Sisley attributes the firings to her political activism, adding that the three-year marijuana education grant had begun just six months earlier. UA did not respond to requests for comment.

The U.S. Public Health Service approved Sisley’s study in March. The same month, Sisley publicly denounced Arizona Senator Kimberly Yee for blocking a bill that would free medical marijuana program surplus money to fund research. Sisley also alerted news reporters to a budget bill amendment that would have restricted universities’ abilities to host marijuana research, leading author Sen. Andrew Biggs to remove it. On April 4, UA asked Sisley to outline her political activity, and on June 27, she received walking papers.

“It was incredibly demoralizing to be an alum and to be such a proud Wildcat for life and donor and see everything dissipate in one moment,” Sisley says. However, the firing “brought complete clarity to me that I now have a duty. I can’t relent now. It’s like the eyes of the world are on this injustice.”

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Sisley is an unlikely medical marijuana crusader. She’s a lifelong Republican, raised by Israeli parents who waited 20 years for U.S. citizenship. Once naturalized, they believed in supporting their adopted country, not making a fuss. The family moved to Arizona from Michigan in time for Sisley to attend high school. It wasn’t until college at Northern Arizona University that Sisley, now 45, discovered political advocacy.

As student body president, Sisley embraced drama – in the theater program and politics. At a rally protesting tuition increases, Sisley dressed as Santa Claus, her friends carrying coffins to portray the hikes as deadly to students. “It was all very dramatic,” she recalls. She graduated feeling empowered.

During medical residency at Banner Good Samaritan in the late ‘90s, Sisley began treating veterans. “I was stunned by their candor,” she says. They have “a bluntness that you don’t get from anybody else in the community because they know that life is short and you need to just talk from the heart.”

Over time, many of the vets died. “That’s the biggest thing that motivates me,” she says. “I see them one day, and the next day, I find out from their family they killed themselves.”

Every day, 22 veterans nationwide commit suicide, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The typical PTSD treatment involves anti-depressants, but Sisley says they’re ineffective and can cause side effects like sexual dysfunction and weight gain.

About 10 years ago, some of her patients mysteriously improved despite unfilled prescriptions. Sisley was bewildered. Reluctantly, the veterans divulged their secret: medical marijuana. Sisley initially disapproved, but says the anecdotal evidence mounted.

The next step, a clinical trial, will include 76 veterans combined at Johns Hopkins University (the college came forward after her firing), and in Arizona at a privately owned, anonymously-donated building in Scottsdale. In December, the state of Colorado gave the study a $2 million grant from its medical marijuana program surplus, though no part of the study will take place in Colorado. Sisley, who wanted to keep the study in Arizona to honor the military veterans here who advocated for it, says Colorado lawmakers’ desire to explore the potential of medical marijuana outweighed their need to host the study.

By the end of 2014, everything seemed on track. Except for the marijuana. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the sole federally approved grower of research-grade weed, has yet to deliver the clinical buds. Finding laboratory space in Arizona also proved difficult. After UA fired Sisley, no other state university would house the study. Eleven hospital systems said no, and every landlord she approached balked at the word “marijuana.” Now, with most details finalized, the study will start whenever NIDA supplies the drug, which will reportedly be May 2015.

Sisley’s study will measure efficacy and help to establish dosing. She knows the risks of improper use firsthand. Shortly after medical marijuana became legal, Sisley’s father, at her behest, secured a card while dying of cancer. He vaporized the drug, but one inhalation did nothing, so Sisley urged him to take more puffs. When the drug took hold, her father started vomiting, having taken too much. “It was awful,” Sisley says. “That was a giant revelation to me [of] how little we understand – how little I understand – about the plant.”

Sisley says the event underscored the need for research. Her father never tried marijuana again, but understood her passion later. “I think [my parents] were terrified. They were scared that people would try to question my professionalism,” she says. “Eventually, my parents started to meet the people... in this movement, and I think they saw there were some extremely intelligent, conservative people.”

Ricardo Pereyda, a 32-year-old Iraq war veteran who befriended Sisley, admires her fortitude. “The fact that somebody is willing to put their professional career on the line, endure ridicule and the naysayers, who says, ‘I just want to do the study and stay humble’? That’s the leadership I want to follow,” he says.

Sisley says the study would not exist without the veterans, who flew to Washington, D.C. to urge federal approval. They send her notes that read things like,  “You are a warrior like us” and “Veterans love you.”

“That’s just like pure gold,” Sisley says. “I don’t feel like I have any courage compared to these guys, you know?” And for the first time, she becomes quiet, dabbing tears that come to her eyes. “So. Yeah.”

 

MMJ for PTSD in AZ
Last May, the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs published research that found patients with PTSD who smoked marijuana saw their symptoms drop by 75 percent.

In July, Arizona became the 10th state to allow medical marijuana for treating post-traumatic stress disorder. The rule took effect in January.

A doctor sign-off is required for a medical marijuana prescription. Doctors affiliated with the Department of Veterans Affairs aren’t allowed to recommend medical marijuana, even in states where it’s legal.