Dr. Sue Sisley is not a military veteran, but she wears or carries a dog tag at all times. Stamped with the number “22,” it is a constant reminder of how American vets commit suicide each day — most suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder — according to federal estimates.
“Even though we all realize that is a falsely low number … it is a horrific number,” she says, noting veteran suicides far outnumber the national civilian average. “[And] the fact is the government is not doing anything tangible to find solutions to this. This is why I have this dog tag with me.”
Sisley, a former Department of Veterans Affairs physician, has devoted her life coming up with an effective treatment for PTSD. But her work, while promising, is controversial and not without detractors.
As one of the nation’s foremost scientific experts on medical marijuana, Sisley is spearheading what many experts regard as groundbreaking research on the potential use of cannabis in treating PTSD and other maladies suffered by millions of vets and civilian Americans.
For the study, funded by a $2 million grant from the Colorado Health Department, she has partnered with such top-notch medical institutions as Johns Hopkins University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Colorado-Denver.
In announcing the federal government’s approval of her research project, Sisley drew a sustained standing ovation during a recent Fort Lauderdale medical marijuana conference sponsored by Viridian Capital Advisors and Phyto Partners.
“If there is even a chance that cannabis could help reduce the suffering of our veterans community then we have a duty to these vets to find ways to change public policy, to bring the science forward, and let the data speak for itself,” she says.
Sisley first became interested in cannabis as an alternative-medicine therapy for PTSD as VA physician and psychiatrist. Many of her patients told her marijuana was helping them in ways that approved medications were not.
As a conventionally trained Scottsdale physician who never smoked pot, Sisley was initially skeptical, in part because the Food and Drug Administration has not approved marijuana’s use for PTSD. But, over time, the anecdotal evidence began piling up, with hundreds of veterans telling her that cannabis was helping to control their symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
At the same time, she noticed FDA-approved treatments for PTSD — largely antidepressants and painkillers — were not working for many of her patients.
“One of the things that became clear to me was that I was losing a lot of veterans to suicide in my practice,” she notes. “They weren’t responding to conventional medicine.”
For Sisley, the turning point came in early 2013, when the VA released a landmark study estimating that 22 vets commit suicide every day.
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As a professor at the University of Arizona, she was moved by the VA study to secure federal approval for a clinical trial to gauge the benefits of cannabis. In March 2014, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department green-lighted the study, but the university terminated her position shortly thereafter — for political reasons, she claims.
University officials have declined to discuss Sisley’s dismissal, calling it a “personnel matter,” and denied politics were a factor.
But her termination drew wide national media attention and sparked a backlash from veterans groups and medical scientists who argued that her dismissal spotlighted barriers that have long blocked marijuana research.
In the wake of the controversy, Sisley pulled in a handful of prestigious collaborators for her study, including the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. And in April of this year, the Drug Enforcement Administration gave its blessing to the project — making Sisley the first researcher to win federal approval to study smoked marijuana a potential FDA-approved prescription medicine for PTSD.
She and her colleagues have begun recruiting and enrolling the participants, including 76 veterans who have treatment-resistant PTSD, and expect results within three years.
“The great news is this is a really nice comeback story,” she says. “We ended up gaining … worldwide media coverage [of her termination], which helped shine a giant spotlight on the barriers to cannabis research.”
Sisley notes federal drug laws lump cannabis into the same category as harder drugs such as heroin and LSD. Meanwhile, drugs approved to treat PTSD are classed as having “low addiction potential” — including opioid painkillers linked to a huge spikes in overdose deaths and suicides among vets and other Americans in recent years.
“We only have two medications on the market now that have FDA approval for PTSD: Zoloft and Paxil. That’s it,” she says. “And when those fail, then I’m able to use all these other medications off-label” — including pain meds, antidepressants, and sleep aids.
She points out that many studies have suggested compounds in marijuana may have significant clinical properties, including cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Scientific research suggests cannabis holds promise in treating more than 40 health conditions, including cancer, arthritis, pain, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV/AIDs, anxiety, multiple sclerosis, anxiety, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Sisley says she has been cheered by the growing acceptance of cannabis as a legitimate alternative-medicine therapy. She adds that her research offers the prospect of addressing not only veterans’ mental-health and addiction issues, but also those facing millions of civilian Americans.
“This is exciting because, finally, we have government money going to look at the efficacy of cannabis all different illnesses [including] the potential for cannabis to be used for pain management,” she adds.
“So we are going to be answering all of these questions through these clinical trials and you’ll have this data, you’ll see this emerge, and get published over the next three years.”
Read more: Can Medical Marijuana Combat PTSD in Vets?