A University of Arizona physician has taken the first political steps in her bid to do medical marijuana research at state-run schools.
Sue Sisley, a specialist in internal medicine and psychiatry, has formed Americans for Scientific Freedom, which she will chair. The filing with the Secretary of State's Office will allow her to collect donations for political purposes.
But Sisley told Capitol Media Services the committee is not designed to elect legislators who support research or defeat those who oppose it. Instead, she wants to lobby lawmakers to change the law to let her do her work at the UA.
Potentially more significant, she also is looking at changes to the law to let the state health department fund medical marijuana research.
Legislation approved last year was designed to close what some lawmakers saw as a loophole in the state's 2010 medical marijuana law. That initiative allows those with a doctor's recommendation to possess and use up to 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana every two weeks.
While the measure banned the drug on public school campuses, it was silent on the question of state-run universities and community colleges.
Rep. Amanda Reeve, R-Phoenix, said university officials told her they thought that loophole would run afoul of federal regulations governing universities which require they forbid students from having illegal controlled substances. Reeve said schools that fail to comply faced loss of federal funding and financial assistance for students.
Gov. Jan Brewer eventually signed the legislation.
The problem, said Sisley, is the UA is now interpreting that law to ban her on-campus research.
Sisley said she gained approval nearly two years ago from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to conduct a study to determine whether marijuana, in various dosages and methods of administration, can help combat veterans with post traumatic stress syndrome.
"It's the first randomized control (study) that would be done in Arizona,'' she said.
Sisley said her proposal already had been approved by the UA's Institutional Review Board which must give the go-ahead for research on live subjects. What's next, she said, is getting approval from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to sell her the drugs for study.
"Before the governor signed that ban about marijuana on campus, we were assuming that our study was going to be conducted on the university campus, which is the only real safe and appropriate forum for that,'' Sisley said. "I need to be in a place where my patients and my staff can feel safe.''
Then the university sent her plan packing.
"Our policy is to comply with state law, which would prohibit conducting research using medical marijuana on institutional property,'' said UA spokesman Johnny Cruz.
Reeve called that position is a surprise, saying she talked with university officials while her measure was being considered last session.
"They said this doesn't impact medical research or studies being done,'' she told Capitol Media Services. "It only impacts the use of it.''
Katie Paquet, spokeswoman for the state Board of Regents, which lobbied for the measure, said she could not comment on what was or was not told to Reeve. But Paquet echoed Cruz' position that the law, unless changed, makes on-campus research unacceptable.
Gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson said his boss is willing to take another look at the issue. "If there is legitimate, federally approved research that would be hampered by this law, the governor is willing to consider changes to the statute this session,'' he said.
Clearing up the question of where Sisley can do the research is only part of the problem. She still is looking for the approximately $250,000 she needs, most to pay what the DEA charges researchers for marijuana.
That, too, might be remedied by another change in law allowing state funding.
The Department of Health Services is required every year to consider petitions to expand the list of medical conditions for which marijuana can legally be recommended. Health Director Will Humble weighed a half-dozen of them last year -- including one supported by Sisley for adding PTSD -- but rejected all of them after concluding there is insufficient professional research on whether marijuana is an effective treatment.
Humble said he would like to have good research. And he said his agency has about $5 million in the medical marijuana fund, money left over after processing all the applications for dispensaries and user cards.
But the health director questioned whether the 2010 law lets him to use any of that to fund the research he needs to review the petitions.
Humble said the best bet would be for Sisley and others to get lawmakers to allow him to give up to $1 million a year to the Arizona Biomedical Research Commission which already provides medical research grants. Humble said the law could be altered to permit research into whether there are legitimate medical uses for marijuana.
The Arizona Constitution prohibits lawmakers from repealing or making major changes in any voter-approved law. That is why Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, is proposing to put the Medical Marijuana Act back on the 2014 ballot to see if voters are willing to repeal it.
But the Constitution does permit lawmakers to make changes that "further the purpose'' of the underlying measure. And a case could be made that doing research into what medical conditions can be helped by marijuana fits that requirement.
Humble said other changes in the law may be appropriate.
He noted that every time someone buys a controlled substance like an opiate from a drug store, there's a record made. There also are similar records for medical marijuana sales from dispensaries.
Humble said he wants to see if people who complain of chronic pain who now can buy marijuana reduce the amount of opiates they buy. He said that should provide some evidence of whether marijuana, generally considered less dangerous, may be a better alternative.
But Humble said current law prohibits anything in those purchase records from being disclosed, even to his own researchers. He said the statute should be amended to permit such work.
Similarly, Humble wants access to the centralized trauma registry to determine if those who use medical marijuana are more or less likely to get into car accidents.