She obtained special permissions from various levels of government, secured a tentative research location and met last week with donors who she said were enthusiastic about funding the study.
Then last Friday, the university fired Sisley, and she believes Arizona lawmakers are behind her termination.
Sisley advocated on behalf of her marijuana research, meeting with politicians, attending rallies with military veterans supportive of her research and publicly criticizing those – including Republican legislators – who opposed her study.
Earlier this year, she pushed for legislation that would have allowed the Arizona Department of Health Services to allocate research money from the department’s growing medical marijuana patient processing fee fund surplus.
That money is intended to cover the Health Department’s medical marijuana program administration costs. The Arizona Medical Marijuana Act says that any surplus is to be used in furtherance of the program. The fund now has more than $9 million. Sisley’s proposed study would cost approximately $1.2 million.
Sisley said she made efforts not to mix her professional work at the university with her advocacy for the research. She said the administration may believe that she violated university rules with some of her activity, but said she was aware of the rules and made certain to abide by them. She defended her actions, saying that she could not convince UA administrators to lobby for the bill that would have helped fund her research.
In April, Sisley said she was asked by Joe “Skip” Garcia, the University of Arizona’s senior vice president for health sciences, to provide a detailed account of her political activity.
“(Skip) said he was calling on behalf of the (university) president’s office, and said that if I didn’t reply to his request, I wouldn’t have a job,” Sisley said.
Sisley said Garcia told her that Senate President Andy Biggs had questioned Sisley’s activism with members of UA administration and government relations team, which Sisley said she believed precipitated scrutiny and ultimately her firing.
Garcia was not in the office and could not be reached for comment.
Biggs denied Sisley’s story, but said he did speak with UA lobbyist Tim Bee about the bill that would have funded Sisley’s study from the medical marijuana fee fund.
“If asking a few questions about the bill and the university’s stance on it… I guess what she’s suggesting is that I urged her termination, which is flatly false,” Biggs said.
Biggs also introduced an amendment to a state budget bill earlier this year that would have explicitly prohibited general fund money from going toward any marijuana research.
“I don’t remember the genesis of (the amendment),” Biggs said. “But the idea was simply, you know, I don’t think we should fund that sort of thing. We have limited funds and better things to spend it on.”
Sisley’s study would not, however, have been funded from the state’s general fund.
Sisley said she wrote the letter for Garcia and assumed that would be the end of the inquiry. But as weeks went by, Sisley said several people close to the university’s administration told her that she had been targeted by lawmakers and university administration.
Sisley said her performance evaluations were always positive, so she felt her job was safe.
But in a letter delivered Friday, Sisley was told her medical and academic appointments with UA will not be renewed. A spokesman for the university said they do not comment on personnel issues.
A spokeswoman from The Arizona Board of Regents also said they also do not comment on personnel issues.
“This is how the universities get rid of their problems, I guess,” Sisley said, “They paint a picture of this loose cannon, off-the-rails troublemaker.”
Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, sponsored the bill that would have funded Sisley’s study. Orr said that whether a person supports or opposes marijuana use, research into the drug’s impact is necessary.
“This is something that, with the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act and possibly recreational use after 2016, we need as much research as possible,” Orr said. “Whether you’re for it or against it, you need to medically study the impact of the drug and impairment levels, or else you can’t enforce these laws.”
Orr said he is looking into what happened.
“If there is some kind of behind-the-scenes string pulling going on that curtails educational freedom, that’s just unacceptable,” Orr said. “I hope that’s not the case.”
Sisley said she is trying to determine if she can carry out her study at another Arizona university. If not, she said she will look to a state where the political environment is more welcoming of marijuana research.