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U. of Arizona Prof’s Marijuana Study Remains in Limbo

The future of University of Arizona (UA) Professor Suzanne Sisley’s research on the potential benefits of marijuana for treating post-traumatic stress disorder in military veterans remains uncertain after a letter from FIRE and continuing media coverage of the case.

As we reported in July here on The Torch, UA opted not to renew Sisley’s employment contract just after Sisley had made significant progress towards having her study approved by several government entities. Sisley alleges that the university’s decision was retaliatory. Specifically, Sisley believes that the university chose not to renew her contract because administrators thought she had participated in an effort to recall a state senator who opposed additional funding for her project.

On August 1, FIRE wrote to UA President Ann Weaver Hart (PDF), warning that UA’s decision to terminate Sisley will have a significant chilling effect on future research at UA. We wrote:

Other UA faculty will undoubtedly note Sisley’s termination and regard it as a warning about the possible consequence of their research, teaching, or their political activity as private citizens being perceived as a political liability to the university. Sadly, in FIRE’s experience, public colleges and universities all too frequently buckle under pressure from state legislators seeking to prevent research—or suppress particular researchers—viewed as of step with their political agendas.

As we noted in our letter, the idea that Sisley’s termination was motivated by the controversial nature of her research or by the recall effort is supported by her statements that she was questioned about her advocacy in April:

Sisley reports that in early April 2014, she was called by Senior Vice President for Health Sciences Joe Garcia and questioned about her political activities. Sisley states that Garcia’s questioning was particularly focused on whether she had any involvement in the recall effort and whether she had any knowledge of a flyer supporting the recall that featured the UA logo. According to Sisley, Garcia informed her that Arizona Senate President Andy Biggs had called [Hart’s] office and made inquiries regarding Sisley’s email and telephone records.

Further, UA’s claim that Sisley could not continue to work as Coordinator of Special Projects for the College of Medicine – Phoenix because of a lack of funding was contradicted by a statement from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which is sponsoring Sisley’s research. As MAPS wrote in a July 29 statement:

[T]he university reports that the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) grant was slated for completion in September 2014. This is false. The fully funded ADHS grant was projected to run at least two years starting January 2014/with [sic] The primary goal was to provide education about the various uses of medical marijuana to physicians statewide utilizing the educational tools created over the first six months of the grant. The University of Arizona’s abrupt termination of the grant and of Dr. Sisley’s position forced the cancellation of over 100 lectures to physicians across Arizona that had been scheduled through February 2015.

MAPS is currently looking into whether the study may continue—with Sisley leading it—at another university.

Meanwhile, The New York Times has also taken note of the controversy. Last Saturday, Serge F. Kovaleski detailed the hurdles that marijuana researchers like Sisley face before a study like this one can proceed. Kovaleski also provided fresh insights on the potential role of elected officials in the events leading to Sisley’s termination:

The State Senate president, Andrew Biggs, called the university’s chief lobbyist, Tim Bee, to complain that Dr. Sisley seemed to be lobbying too aggressively and inappropriately. “Tim said he would call me back after he found out more,” Mr. Biggs said in an interview. “And then he did and told me, ‘This will not be a problem going forward.’”

In April, a university vice president, who said he was calling on behalf of the president, Ann Weaver Hart, told Dr. Sisley that Mr. Biggs thought she should resign, Dr. Sisley recounted.

In short, UA’s actions are troubling—and are likely to be viewed by other professors as a signal that they should refrain from advocacy and research on controversial topics. FIRE requested a response by August 22, so while UA still has an opportunity to explain itself, the allegations should be of great concern to those who value universities as places where innovative medical research can occur.

FIRE will continue to watch for updates on the case.

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