Can veterans help treat the trauma of war with marijuana? That's what one psychiatrist intends to find out, and is one step closer to doing so after Colorado's medicinal marijuana authority put her pot research in line to receive a $2 million grant.
Sue Sisley is the doctor overseeing the country's only FDA-approved study investigating the medical efficacy of marijuana in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This week, her research with veterans got the green light from the Colorado State Medical Marijuana Scientific Advisory Council, which recommended Sisley's study be financed from a $10 million fund the General Assembly set aside last year for medical marijuana research.
"Getting this grant is a big deal because it's the first time a government agency has given us funding," Sisley told VICE News. "I can't believe how many veterans have sent me letters from all over the country after hearing [about it]."
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The state's Board of Health will make its final decision on whether to award Sisley the grant on December 17. State officials have told Sisley and her sponsor, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, that the recommendations are final.
Sisley first attempted the study at the University of Arizona, where she had been working for some eight years. The university's Institutional Review Board approved her original investigation in 2012.
But this July, the research was put on hold after Sisley was fired from the university, which she suspects was the result of pressure put on the school by Republican politicians in the state legislature.
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Now, the research looks to be back on track. Sisley told VICE News the $2 million would allow her to carry out triple-blind studies with 76 veterans experiencing PTSD within one year.
According to the VA, as many as 20 percent of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. On average, 22 veterans commit suicide each day.
Sisley believes that medical marijuana can help alleviate some of the conditions of PTSD and avoid the cocktail of often highly-depressive and addictive drugs that she herself prescribed to veterans for many years.
"Over the past ten years, veterans have been disclosing to me that they are using marijuana," Sisley told VICE News shortly after she was booted from the University of Arizona. "Initially I was highly judgmental and chastised them."
"But more veterans started coming out of the shadows and disclosing in their private sessions to me that they were using the plant," she said. "You couldn't ignore it after a while - it was a relentless stream of veterans."
Despite the high profile vote of confidence from Colorado's medical marijuana council, Sisley says she is still missing one thing in her research: pot. Under federal law, only the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) can provide researchers with marijuana needed to conduct their studies. No other study on schedule 1 drugs - a category that includes Ecstasy, LSD and MDMA - is subject to review by NIDA and the federal Public Health Services.
Sisley finally received approval from NIDA in March of this year, but has yet to receive any Marijuana.
"If NIDA doesn't like your study, they can simply end it by refusing to sell you study drugs," Sisley said in July. "They can step in and say we don't like that because NIDA has a mission to curb all illicit drug use."
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Sisley says she can't understand the delay.
"You talk to any state level growers, everyone says they could have study drug ready and processed within three months, including the high-CBD strains we've asked for," she said. "When we initially talked to NIDA, they only had 5-year-old dried up marijuana that had none of the cannabinoid profiles left."
CBD, shorthand for Cannabidiol, is one of at least 85 cannabinoids present in marijuana, each of which can have varying effects on the user when taken alone or combined with others. Strong anecdotal evidence has shown high-CBD strains can be effective in treating seizures, particularly in children.
Meanwhile, strains high in THC - the main mind-altering ingredient in cannabis - offer the traditional "high" associated with marijuana, which can be useful in palliative care. For many years, NIDA produced only high-THC strains, and only for studies that examined pot's dangers, rather than its potential benefits.
Because Colorado has not stipulated where the grant money must be spent, Sisley said she would run the trials in two locations. Half the veterans, many of whom she already treats in her Arizona practice, would remain there. The other veterans will be studied under the supervision of Dr. Ryan Vandrey, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.
Marcel O. Bonn-Miller, a doctor at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), would oversee trials in both locations.
Sisley says she expects the Johns Hopkins Institutional Review Board to approve Vandrey's half of the study and will turn to a private government-approved board to vet her own. A private donor in Arizona has already offered her space to work with the veterans.
"After the rollercoaster this research has been on, we are determined that this will land in a safe place," she said.
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Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford