The United States needs to focus on the problem of treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but the fight against PTSD suffered a setback when the University of Arizona fired Dr. Suzanne Sisley who had proposed studying the efficacy of cannabis as a PTSD treatment medication. She said her ouster was political; spokespeople from the university said they are continuing with the study.
Over 2.2 million troops went to battle in Iraq and Afghanistan; part of the longest-sustained set of military actions the United States has ever seen. More than 6,600 troops died and 48,000 were injured, according to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.
Of the overall troop population from the two most recent wars, The National Institutes of Health reported that 11 percent of troops returning from Afghanistan and 20 percent from Iraq will be afflicted with PTSD. Furthermore, nearly 31 percent of Vietnam veterans and possibly 10 percent of Persian Gulf War veterans may suffer from PTSD.
The firing of Dr. Sisley is a blow to cannabis researchers. As a Schedule I drug, marijuana has no recognized medical benefits, according to Congress; therefore, it cannot be subjected to clinical testing. Furthermore, CNN reported that of the 2,000 recent papers on marijuana in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, only six percent cover marijuana’s medical benefits.
Dr. Sisley told CNN that the University of Arizona didn’t like the “optics” of veterans using pot on their campus, even though her study was FDA-approved, randomized and contained a control group. Dr. Sisley also said her study had been approved for three years, and it depended on the university finding her a location to conduct the study. Dr. Sisley said the university never found a place.
Ultimately, Dr. Sisley was told her three contracts with the University of Arizona would not be renewed, but she did not receive an explanation as to why. Her study was to be funded by Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. According to a spokesperson from the University of Arizona, they have reached out MAPS to assure the university’s commitment to the research.
Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of MAPS, told CNN that he explained to the university that MAPS supports Dr. Sisley and hopes to get her back at her job. MAPS isn’t the only group interested in Sisley’s return; currently, there is an online petition with over 95,000 signatures in support of Dr. Sisley getting her job back.
Unfortunately, funding requests for Sisley’s study, and other medical marijuana studies in Arizona, were blocked in April by a state senator who prevented a hearing of a House-passed bill that would have let surplus funds be used for medical marijuana research. State lawmakers clashed with Sisley’s research, and she told The Arizona Republic that she believes the university let her go because of political pressure. The university denied this accusation and declined to comment on “personnel issues” with CNN.
Dr. Sisley’s lawyer, Jason Flores-Williams, has filed an appeal to get her University of Arizona employment reinstated, but told The Arizona Republic that it won’t likely be successful, given Dr. Sisley was not a tenured professor. Still, if the initial appeal is shot down, Flores-Williams said Dr. Sisley will probably want to take it to a higher court.
While all this has been happening, there has been one positive step made in Arizona for treating PTSD with medical marijuana. Will Humble, director of Arizona’s Department of Health and Human Services, wrote in his blog that he was issuing a “director’s decision” to permit the use of medical marijuana as a “palliative” treatment for PTSD, beginning January 1, 2015. This means that cannabis cannot be used to treat PTSD itself, but can be used to manage its symptoms.
Among states with medical marijuana laws on the books, PTSD is not commonly among the conditions considered treatable with medical marijuana. According to ProCon.org, while 23 states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, only six currently include PTSD as a condition for which it may be prescribed. Arizona will be the seventh state, if no other states make changes this year.
Delaware has approved PTSD as a condition, only if it manifests as “physical suffering.” The other states are Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New York and Oregon. Thinkprogress reported that Colorado recently rejected a bill that would have added PTSD to the list of approved conditions for medical marijuana.
Since politicians don’t seem to listen to veterans, some artists are using their skills to voice the veterans’ plea. “No Man Left Behind,” a film revealing the inadequacy of PTSD treatments for veterans, was created by Nicholas Brennan for the HBO news series “Vice.” The film, and its companion piece, “PTSD: Paid Till Suicide or Death,” suggests the current state of PTSD treatment consists of endless prescription pain pills, and both films highlight the tragic struggle of a man who chose to self-medicate with heroin.
With an obvious need to acknowledge the dire situation of PTSD treatment, there is also a need for states to leave politics out of it, so scientists and researchers may work to find answers, and improve the lives of those who are suffering. Dr. Sisley should not have been fired, but her termination should empower academics to prevent elected officials from unjustly influencing higher education.