PHOENIX — The head of the organization offering to fund a study on medical marijuana at the University of Arizona said he will pull the cash unless the school restores fired doctor and researcher Suzanne Sisley to the staff and the project.
Rick Doblin said Tuesday he rejected offers by UA officials to have someone other than Sisley named as “principal investigator” for the study on whether marijuana is useful for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder. Doblin, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, said his group has four years of history with Sisley and will move its funding wherever she goes.
The UA is apparently unwilling to budge, however.
Two top officials at the school’s College of Medicine sent a letter to Sisley earlier this month terminating her. They said the telemedicine program she headed has made a “strategic decision” to change its focus and therefore she will no longer be needed.
University spokesman George Humphrey said the school remains hopeful MAPS will keep the study at the university, but with someone else at the helm.
Doblin said the UA is free to create and finance its own study if it wants, and his organization will provide what assistance it can, but it will not fund the study.
At this point, Doblin said the study is looking for a new home. And he said Sisley already has been approached by schools in other states.
He said he remains hopeful the work can continue in Arizona — albeit not at the UA. The Board of Regents will be asked to allow the research to be conducted at either Arizona State University or Northern Arizona University, because Sisley, who graduated from the UA and lives in Phoenix, would prefer not to leave the state.
That may be an option — if either of the schools are interested.
Regents spokeswoman Katie Paquet said, “So long as the university obtains all the necessary approvals to comply with state and federal law and regulatory requirements, there is no policy in place that would preclude a different state university from conducting this research.”
Doblin said another possibility is his organization, which has been approved by federal officials as the official institution, “could conceivably do the study” out of Sisley’s private telemedicine practice office where Sisley said she says she sees about 20 patients a day via video.
The office now operates from her own home. Sisley said she would have to get a secure office before the feds allow her to obtain marijuana.
Her study has been four years in the making, much of that because the federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, one for which there is no legitimate medical use.
But MAPS and Sisley have successfully navigated the process, getting the blessing of not only federal agencies but the UA’s own Institutional Review Board which had to approve the protocols because the research involves using human subjects.
And in March, the federal Public Health Service gave its first-of-its-kind approval to studying medical benefits of marijuana.
The project still needs permission from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency before it can go forward, Doblin said, which will require a secure location.
Funding is also an issue. Doblin said the study has a budget of $876,000, but to date MAPS has received specific grants earmarked for Sisley’s work of only $19,000.
Sisley contends there likely is a political component to the UA’s decision not to renew her contracts: She got into a very public dispute with Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, who earlier this year killed a House-passed bill which would have opened the door to using fees paid by medical marijuana patients to finance the research.