PAGE, Ariz. – Dr. Susan A. Sisley’s plan to study whether marijuana use can be beneficial for treating post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans was in danger of going up in smoke.
Then, on Dec. 17, the Colorado Board of Health awarded her preliminary approval for a $2 million grant so her research can continue. Sisley, who specializes in internal medicine and psychiatry, was first given a green light for the only FDA-approved marijuana study four years ago. However, her study still lacks one essential ingredient.
Under federal law, marijuana for research purposes can only be acquired through the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), which is under the umbrella of the Department of Health and Human Services.
“They keep telling me they have no marijuana to sell me,” Sisley said, in a phone interview. NIDA suggested they might have marijuana available in March or April, Sisley added.
The delay she is experiencing comes from a combination of reasons, including lawenforcement agencies’ opposition to marijuana use and the powerful pharmaceutical lobbies, she said.
Sisley was fired from her alma mater, Northern Arizona University, earlier this year. NAU refused to let Sisley do her research on campus.
The Colorado grant means Sisley’s study can continue – without the need for an Arizona university to house the project.
Sisley began her interest in this study after several of her patients – military veterans with PTSD – told her that they were finding some benefits by using marijuana.
“Five or six years ago, veterans began mentioning using marijuana. At the beginning I was against [marijuana use]. I chastised them for using it,” Sisley said. But with other PTSD medications – such as Zoloft and Paxil – having side effects, such as sexual dysfunction, she began to reconsider her view. “Instead of condemning them for using marijuana, I began to listen to them,” Sisley said.
With more and more patients attesting to the benefits they found with marijuana usage, Sisley decided this research needed to be done if there was a possibility of improving the quality of life for America’s veterans.
Sisley’s study would involve a triple-blind, randomized control trial; half of the 76 patients would receive their marijuana strains at an Arizona location and the remaining at Johns Hopkins University.
“Twenty-two veterans a day commit suicide,” Sisley said. “We have to do something.”
The Food and Drug Administration is not the blockade to her study, Sisley explained. The FDA approved her project in April of 2011.
“Then I ran into a ridiculous mountain of red tape,” she said. Included were a plethora of regulations that other drug studies – including those on heroin – were not subjected to, Sisley said.
In March, Sisley received a final approval for her study. She has spent the last eight months waiting for NIDA to sell her marijuana.
Her work hasn’t been without personal cost. Earlier this year she was terminated from NAU when her proposed marijuana study began to garner more attention, and she butted heads with lawmakers. She has been accused of being a “Pied Piper,” advocating marijuana use.
“It just shows you how deep the politics run on this,” she said. “Politics trumps science.”
Sisley is determined to keep part of the research in Arizona, citing her commitment to the state’s veterans. There is a possibility that Arizona State University will offer Sisley a position there, though nothing definite has emerged, Sisley said.
In any case, a private donor has offered her lab space in Scottsdale.
NIDA and the Drug Enforcement Agency do not look favorably on marijuana studies, Sisley said. They generally only give the green light to studies designed to show the harmful effects of marijuana, Sisley said.
“The question is, why should they be opposed to science?” Sisley said.