Veterans, medical marijuana activists and scientists welcomed the first federally approved research into pot as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
But their hopes for the research were dashed when the Univ. of Arizona fired researcher Suzanne Sisley, who undertook the study after clearing four years of bureaucratic hurdles.
Sisley, a medical doctor who also taught and researched at the university, sought the project after years of treating military vets who told her that marijuana was the only drug that helped them improve symptoms of the disorder that affects up to 20% of those who served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
The university said it let Sisley go on June 27. In a letter to Sisley, released Friday to The Associated Press, the university says she was fired because funding for part of the work she did with the medical school was running out and because the telemedicine program she worked with is shifting direction.
Chris Sigurdson, a spokesman for the university, said the school is committed to continuing the project and is looking to replace Sisley with another researcher who can raise more money.
Sisley says she lost the job because state legislators who opposed her work had put pressure on the university—a claim the school denies.
Her study would have measured the effects of five different potencies of smoked or vaporized marijuana in treating symptoms of PTSD in 50 veterans.
"Basically ours would have been the first and only controlled study looking at marijuana effects on PTSD. There are very few randomized control studies," Sisley said.
Ricardo Pereyda, an Army veteran of the Iraq war, said the end of the study is a tremendous disservice to military vets.
Pereyda, of Tucson, said his symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder—anxiety, insomnia, depression—were eased when he smoked marijuana.
"It allowed me to get some much needed rest and sleep because I was suffering from insomnia," Pereyda said. "It reduced my anxiety attacks. It just allowed me to regain something that I had lost overseas during my deployment and allowed to me reconnect with those around me."
Getting federal approval to research marijuana is a laborious and long process. While the federal government approves and funds many studies that look into the negative effects of cannabis, it has been reluctant to approve those that consider its positive ones.
Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I substance under the federal government's Controlled Substance Act, meaning it is too high-risk for abuse and has no accepted medical applications.
"In regards to medical marijuana, the DEA of course recognizes the pain and suffering of individuals with serious illness and their need for medication," DEA spokesman Matt Barden said. "However, the FDA has repeatedly concluded that marijuana has a high potential for addiction and has no acceptable level of medical use."
Marijuana research advocates argue that if the federal government were to allow and fund medical marijuana research on a large scale, it would have the evidence it needs to reclassify the drug.
"It is unequivocally a situation you would describe as Catch-22," said Malik Burnett of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Basically the Drug Enforcement Administration and the National Institute of Drug Abuse tandem to put tremendous amounts of barriers to conducting cannabis research."
Sisley says the battle is not over. She is asking the university to reinstate her. If she fails, she intends to try to get another university to take on the project.