Amazing Women in Weed

April 3, 2024

Dr. Sue Sisley

When you speak with Dr. Sue Sisley, you can feel her passion for medical weed. While she has never consumed it herself, she knows just how important the plant can be to many patients. You’d never be able to tell, but Sisley was born with a congenital eye disease that has left her blind in one eye and partially blind in the other. She knows firsthand just how important having an advocate for important issues can be.

Before Weed

For years, Dr. Sue Sisley worked for over 20 years as a highly regarded psychologist and internal medicine physician based in Arizona, specializing in working with veterans. During her career, she found that PTSD was rampant among combat veterans. Seeing a growing epidemic, she threw herself into finding ways to subside the effects of PTSD. She estimated that dozens of veterans she has treated over the years have committed suicide after not being able to find relief. Not since Paxil and Zoloft were released had any research been done to find an alternative source of relief. After speaking with many vets and asking how they dealt with symptoms, she realized there was one common method they all used to combat PTSD-weed. Some of her patients reluctantly shared how consuming cannabis helped them more than some prescribed pharmaceuticals. At first, she was skeptical, but families of the vets continuously backed their claims that cannabis gave them much-needed relief from nightmares and trouble sleeping and she finally was convinced. This birthed the next phase of her career-advocating and studying the benefits of cannabis for PTSD. She began working with MAPS-Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and crafted a study to test the efficacy of cannabis for treating PTSD. The FDA approved the study in 2011, but that left Sisley fighting for funding. In the spring of 2014, Sisley lobbied the Arizona State Legislature to use money from the state’s medical cannabis revenue but was denied. During this time, she was working as an Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of Arizona. After being with the University for 8 years, in the summer of 2014, she was fired for “funding and reorganization issues’, but Dr. Sisley claims it was due to her interest in studying the potential medicinal uses of cannabis. She appealed to have her position reinstated the same year, but it was denied.

Taking a different path

The split didn’t deter her at all. If anything, it spurned her on to begin her activism throughout Arizona, the US, and even internationally, to test the efficacy of cannabis on PTSD patients. Determined to not turn her back on her patients as so many before her have after receiving pushback, she began to research a new place to hold her study. While she did not want to become a cannabis activist, she felt she was pushed into it after facing so many obstacles during her tenure in research. She soon accepted an offer to work in a space provided by Weed Depot’s owner, Howard Baer. Sisley first rejected the offer, as she didn’t want to be so closely associated with the cannabis industry, saying she didn’t want the optics of “being in bed” with the cannabis industry. She later accepted after they offered her office space that allowed her to continue her telemedicine visits with patients. With a place to conduct her research and funding secured, she was ready to begin. In 2016, she dove head first into her study, but she started to notice that her samples were not of any decent quality to study. She stated the cannabis tested at 8% and was a “powdery mash of sticks, stems, and leaves.”, while also testing positive for yeasts and molds. Unfortunately, since 1968 the DEA has required scientists who study weed to ONLY get their samples from one specific farm supplied by the University of Mississippi.  Seeing this only as a way to slow-walk research, she decided to sue the DEA because they created a monopoly for over 50 years with the University of Mississippi. Especially since they are providing a product that undermines the study due to its poor quality. In addition, she brought to their attention that no other Schedule-1 drugs are restricted to such a monopoly, such as MDMA, and mushrooms. In 2019, the DEA announced that it would be moving forward to facilitate and expand scientific and medical research for cannabis in the U.S.

In addition to her research for veterans with PTSD, Sisley also has conducted research to treat pain management and opioid addiction with cannabis. Allowing her patients to consume cannabis has helped them wean off powerful pharmaceuticals such as opioids, benzodiazapams, and other addictive medicines. She partnered with the University of Michigan to survey data in this area. She started to hear from athletes needing help managing pain or coming off of opioids. Many of her patients were in the NFL, NBA, and MMA among other sports. One player, NFL runningback Mike James, came to her with an opioid addiction and a strong family history of substance abuse. She stated he was so vulnerable and almost suicidal when she met him but was able to wean him off of all prescriptions with the help of cannabis. Unfortunately, the NFL has a no-tolerance policy against drug use. Even so, they joined together to advocate for the medical use of cannabis in the NFL. They went so far as to file for a TUE or a Therapeutic Use Exemption for medical use, citing their research showing how he successfully removed all opiates from his system with the help of cannabis. The NFL wouldn’t budge and James ultimately retired, as his mental health was worth more to him and his family than his career.

Today and beyond

In 2020, Sisley joined her mother, Dr. Hanna Sisley, in opening their medical weed dispensary, White Mountain Health Center, where she serves as Medical Director. She continues her research into the benefits of weed and has expanded into psilocybin research. Her lab is now licensed by the Feds to grow cannabis and psilocybin for research purposes. Her previous fights have also helped pave a smoother road for mushroom research. Many of the talking points on cannabis were directly related to psilocybin, and the military vets, police officers, and firefighters in her corner helped sway lawmakers. “This is the first opportunity we have had to do FDA-authorized studies on human subjects using real, whole natural mushrooms instead of isolated molecules.”

Outside of her research, Sisley says her main goal is to pave the way for young and upcoming scientists to dip their toes in the field. She sees cannabis continuing to have a huge impact on the medical field and is eager to see who is going to continue her work.