February 25, 2021 • 27:41 minutes
#124 – Mental Health and Cannabis with Dr. Jacob Vigil, Associate Professor, Dept of Psychology, university of new mexico
Dr. Jacob Vigil is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of New Mexico.
His basic research focuses on the development and expression of human instincts and his applied research focuses on health disparities and patient treatment, with a particular focus on effects of medical cannabis consumption on patient health outcomes.
He has published numerous research articles on the effective of medical cannabis to treat a variety of ailments include sleep disorders and schizophrenia.
Many use cannabis to help manage their mental health. Dr. Jacob Vigil, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of New Mexico and Director of the Medical Cannabis Research Fund, has dedicated his career to studying the intersection of cannabis and mental health. Learn how cannabis can help replace psychotropic medications.
- Cannabis has a wide therapeutic window of being able to alleviate so many different types of physiological and psychological symptoms.
- CBD vs THC: Which is more effective?
- The current state of cannabis research and what the future holds
- Hemp-derived cannabis vs full-spectrum cannabis: Which is more effective for medical purposes?
- The impact of medical cannabis on mental health problems
Links of Interest
cannabis, research, folks, cbd, people, types, terpenes, patients, medical cannabis, mental health, researchers, cannabis products, studying, cultivator, tenure, thc
Jenn Procacci – Host, CBD School Podcast
Jacob Vigil – Professor of Psychology, University of New Mexico
All right. You are listening to the CBD School Podcast. I’m your host, Jen Procacci. And I’ll be joined today by Dr. Jacob Vigil and we’ll be discussing his work and research on CBD. All right. Dr. Jacob Vigil, thank you so much for joining us this morning. I’m broadcasting from Northern California. And it sounds like you’re broadcasting from the Albuquerque area. It’s great that we can connect here in cyberspace. So something that I like to ask all of my guests when we start our conversation is to share with our listeners, what is your personal relationship with cannabis?
My personal relationship with cannabis? Well, I have taken it upon myself to advocate for the medicinal potential of cannabis as a researcher as well as the safety issues that might involve the use of cannabis. You know, my story’s out there. I basically waited till I got tenure, and I decided to focus full time as a medical cannabis researcher because I believe that our citizens deserve the opportunity to one, advocate for their own health care and to feel confident doing so, and two, to be aware of alternative medications that might improve their life.
Wonderful. And you’re an associate professor at the University of New Mexico. Is that correct?
I am. So I am an associate professor in the Psychology Department at the University of New Mexico.
Fantastic. And how long have you been there with that academic institution?
I’ve been in New Mexico since 2010. I’m actually from here. So I like to claim that I have won the lottery over and over and over in my life. And I’m actually the only academic scientist that is actually tenured in the same city that they grew up. So I have the luxury of getting to see my old buddies, my old stoner buddies still. So it’s a great life.
Well, that’s awesome. Congratulations on that. I always think it’s wonderful when people can stick with their original community and use their professional life and their adult life to bring benefits back to their community. I think that’s really important.
I really do think that it is our responsibility as scientists to directly serve our communities. And that’s something that I think we oftentimes overlook as researchers. Oftentimes we’re chasing our own ego, and so forth. But I really do take it to heart. I see all these folks around me that I wish were experiencing a higher quality of life. And, you know, these folks look like me, they’re probably distant relatives, and so forth. And I really do care for these folks. And that’s why I do what I do.
Cannabis – The Super Medication
So when you got started in science, did you picture yourself as winding up as a medical cannabis researcher? Or is that something that came later down the line for you?
You know, I really do think it is fate. I didn’t start off with this in mind, it’s kind of one of those jobs like an astronaut, that would be really cool to have. But it was certainly not attainable when I was in school and even in my Phd program, and even probably prior to getting tenure. This is an area that’s still stigmatized in the scientific and medical communities in a big way. And that’s why I indeed feel like I had to get tenure before I could stick my neck out and advocate as such.
So before I was doing this, I essentially was an evolutionary psychologist/theorist and writing about human development and the evolution of our emotions and how we think about things and so forth. I started transitioning into pain perception. So I did a lot of experiments with regard to different types of stimuli that affect how we experience pain. And you know, it was about that time that I got tenure. And it was also at that time that I just started seeing all this suffering around me in a new light. And I feel like cannabis may provide an opportunity to alleviate some of that suffering, I call it secondary victimization.
So I define that as oftentimes the disappointment in the lack of efficacy of conventional pharmaceutical medications coupled with oftentimes unbearable side effects of those medications. And when you look around, you see a lot of folks with their shoulders slumped over and they’re depressed and anxious and in chronic pain, and it just seems as though our conventional approach is not working to the extent that we would expect it to in 2020.
So I refer to cannabis as a super medication for a number of reasons. One, it has such a wide therapeutic window of being able to alleviate so many different types of physiological and psychological symptoms. So there’s so many different types of symptoms that this one medication seems to offer relief. Likewise, it is relatively fast-acting so if you compare that to antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, which often take weeks or sometimes even months to supposedly start working, cannabis offers that short-term immediate relief for many different types of symptoms. And then likewise, when you couple those with the relatively low risk of serious negative side effects. So there’s a lot of side effects of using cannabis, but they’re relatively non-serious. So the most frequently reported, for example, might be confusion or drowsiness. And if you compare that to the toxicity levels of just about any class of conventional medications, you have something that’s pretty special.
Absolutely. As a cannabis cultivator and a cannabis consumer myself, I absolutely agree with you there. I’ve never used pharmaceutical antidepressants or anything like that. But like everyone else, I’ve seen the commercials for, you know, an antidepressant drug and they list off the side effects and one of them winds up being something like suicidal tendencies. And you think, wow, that seems really intense for someone who might already be struggling with their mental health, to have to deal with a side effect like that on top of something. So I applaud you for your research. I think it’s wonderful. And I wanted to ask you, do you see benefits to both CBD and THC? Or do you lean one way or the other?
CBD vs THC: The Verdict is Not Clear
Well, I would have to say that I believe that those two players are probably not the full picture. And I don’t believe that we know how they interact together and how they could be applied to specific types of health conditions. So we’ve done a number of different types of studies, different patient populations, different research techniques, methods, and all that type of stuff. And for certain symptoms, we do find greater effects from either THC potency levels or CBD potency levels. So the verdict is not out. And I think in the big scheme of things, we’re going to start to put together, you know, what folks call chemobears or chemotypic profiles that will involve other types of players, the flavonoids and terpenes, and terpenoids, and so forth.
And, you know, it’s an incredibly complicated problem domain that we’re working on. We’re essentially trying to put together a puzzle, and we don’t have all the puzzle pieces. And we don’t know how many puzzle pieces there are. And you know, it is extremely challenging. And that’s why, you know, we’re at this place where we don’t know too much about the specifics of how to individualize this medication yet. Sure, we’ve had a history of prohibition against even doing the research, all that stuff. Yes, that existed. But cannabis also is complicated because it’s so variable. So that also presents challenges for the researcher or the medical provider, and certainly for the patient, when, you know, it’s impossible to obtain the same product twice. And, you know, that is often used as justification for why it shouldn’t be allowed, why it should still be prohibited, this and that.
But I personally think that you know, this experimentation that cannabis forces the patient to go through is a positive thing because it forces them to be mindful of what they’re putting into their body, and to think about how that affected them. And that is an intimate experience that I think is healthy for the individual, you know, relative to just, you know, taking three twice a day as prescribed until you go see your doctor again, regardless of the fact.
Wow, I have to say I absolutely love your perspective on that. And I couldn’t agree more. What you say is absolutely true. It is impossible to obtain the same product twice. As a cultivator, you know, I cultivate cannabis for the legal market. And our product is rigorously tested for THC content and moisture level and things like that. And I could take a sample of cannabis from a batch and have it be tested and then take a sample from the same batch a month later and have it be tested. And the levels of THC and CBD and terpenes can vary just because of the passage of time, let alone from a different plant, a different strain the next year. So I love what you have to say about how a person having a different experience can cultivate their mindfulness. I think that’s absolutely true and really valuable to keep in mind.
Golden Age of Cannabis Research
Do you think that the legalization of cannabis that is, or I should say regulation of cannabis that’s sort of happening around the country is going to lead us to be able to study this plant more, and that that will help us be able to bring this plant to more people for medicinal use?
Well, I think, you know, the obvious answer is that with the lifting of these regulations of the prohibition that is going to allow greater access from all sides. So a lot of folks don’t realize that, you know, scientists have been prohibited from studying the plant for, you know, almost for 100 years plus, right? So it’s incredibly challenging to get the opportunity to actually study it. First of all, you have to get the federal funds, that you have to get the authorization for so many different federal agencies, the DEA, the FDA, NIDA, and so forth. And then at that point, you’re basically restricted to only studying the type of cannabis that the federal government produced, which is oftentimes very low potency and very low quality. So it’s almost as though these clinical trials that have been previously conducted were kind of set up to fail. They were testing THC potency levels of 3% and so forth. And as a result of that, we just don’t have that much research.
It’s interesting to kind of see two-polar types of reactions from folks in the industry. They either think that there’s tons of research out there on cannabis, or they think that there’s almost no research out there. And it’s more towards the latter. But we have much to explore. And certainly, I think, with the lifting of these prohibition laws, we’ll have greater access as researchers, but that doesn’t solve some of the complications and challenges of studying the plant. So if you conduct a randomized control trial, where you’re basically testing the effects of one product, well, it opens up questions as to the generalizability of those findings. So what is that one product having to do with all the other types of products that millions of people are taking every day? So it really requires a different approach to science altogether. And then likewise, I mean, we’re not presumably targeting specific broken aspects of our bodily systems, we’re talking about affecting whole bodily systems at the same time. So that is a different approach to even, you know, the theoretical perspective of what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to intervene, and improving people’s health and so forth.
Yeah, I think that there’s a lot of really interesting stuff on the horizon. I call it the golden age of cannabis research. And I do think that we’re in a place where cannabis researchers are getting safer. As I mentioned, I would probably not have my job if I would have started this 10 years ago, as opposed to five years ago. And I think that that’ll be ultimately a really good thing. It’s interesting. Some of my most ardent critics are my colleagues that are addiction researchers. So these are folks that have been trained in cannabis addiction, and they’ve oftentimes referred patients that are dealing with addictions and substance use and so forth. And they have been my most ardent critics, even when I’m proposing research which suggests that you know, cannabis helps people get off prescription and illicit opiates, and so forth. So you would think that there would be, you know, really welcoming of that type of information. But, you know, we’re still dealing with all this condition to education that has existed ever since we were little, and it’ll take some time and probably further generations to embrace the plant to its full extent, at least in a real generalizable way throughout the country.
Absolutely. I think it really does take time to break away from that mindset. My livelihood comes from cannabis. I’m a cannabis cultivator and I still sometimes struggle with that sort of conditioned thought, the “lessons that we’ve been taught as children”, you said, around cannabis. We know that these aren’t logical any longer. There’s research suggesting otherwise. But it is very hard to move away from that thought process when you’ve been indoctrinated the way that we all were from the time that we were children with the war against drugs and the DARE program and everything along those lines. I think it’s unfortunate but not surprising what you have to say about your colleagues struggling with your research and being your most ardent critics. Unfortunately, I can see that although it’s unfortunate and surprising to me too.
Full-Spectrum vs Broad Spectrum CBD
I had a question for you around hemp and full-spectrum cannabis. So I think I know where you’re going to go with this because you have mentioned that you believe that terpenes and flavonoids play a part in the medicinal benefits of cannabis. Do you recommend full-spectrum cannabis for people that are trying to use cannabis for medicinal purposes? Or do you recommend more hemp-based CBD products?
Well, I think most folks would recommend as full-spectrum and the least adulterated products as possible. Just simply based on the fact that those other types of ingredients or molecules, phytochemicals and so forth have been scientifically shown to have different types of therapeutic effects, even in really small dosages. So these terpenes are real and they seem to be even more powerful, at least in terms of the effects from a similar volume compared to the cannabinoids themselves.
So, you know, again, we just need to learn more about how these chemo bears, these chemotypic profiles are constructed and interacting together. And it could be that they’re working in additive ways, or they’re working in interactive ways. But these are the puzzle pieces that will eventually reveal hopefully the outcome which is to better individualized cannabis treatments for people that are dealing with specific types of health conditions.
So my suggestion is to use the least adulterated product possible because you never know what you’re introducing. And it’s been only recently but I am fully convinced that cannabis can potentially be harmful if it’s not cultivated properly if it is adulterated with chemicals and solvents and so forth. Just like an apple, an apple could be nutritious and good for you, unless it has poison on it. And then it’s not a good thing, right? So presumably in theory, not all cannabis is good. So that’s why I think it’s really important that cannabis cultivators and manufacturers try to abide by the healthiest practices possible for their patients.
Cannabis and Mental Health
Absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more. An apple is great unless it’s covered in pesticides. And cannabis is wonderful unless it’s covered in pesticides. At my farm, we are completely organic. We grow full-term outdoor, under the sun. We believe that allows the plant to have its fullest expression of terpenes and as well as CBD and THC levels and all the other wonderful little compounds that we don’t fully know enough about. We completely believe it produces a superior end product and also the safest product. And this brings me to my next question for you, which is are there certain strains of cannabis that you recommend to patients for certain medical problems, mental health problems that they may be struggling with?
Well, that is a tough question for so many different reasons. Unfortunately, you know, the labels on the cannabis products themselves are not very reliable. So we have access to these huge databases of cannabis’ retail sales. And we’re working with these app developers that basically build this app – it’s really fab — where patients indicate the characteristics of their cannabis, the terpenes, cannabinoid profiles, strain names, indica, sativa, all that type of stuff. We have this huge database. We literally have over a quarter of a million real-time cannabis usage sessions that we’re analyzing in different ways and so forth. But one of the outcomes is that is all the variability in the characteristics across the country for the same strain. So Blue Dream is described in almost infinite ways according to these users that think that they bought Blue Dream. So that is tough, for that reason alone.
I will say that we have found that different types of health conditions seem to be predicted by either THC or CBD. So for example, at least in terms of our research, pain, anxiety, and depression seem to be better treated with a higher THC strain, according to our data. Whereas insomnia seems to be better treated with higher CBD strain. So you know, I think that people have to just figure out what works for them. We’re all built a little different. We’re all dealing with different types of stressors. Some of us need to wind up and get some energy, some of us need to wind down and calm down. And I think that’s where that intimate relationship comes in to trying to identify what works for folks and what they would rather stay away from.
Yes, I definitely agree with you there. And the follow-up to that is that is there a method of ingestion of cannabis that you feel is the most effective for folks that are trying to use cannabis medicinally?
Yeah, I can’t suggest any of those specific things based on the fact that you know, so many patients swear that a certain route of administration is more or less effective for them. And it’s all over the place. Some folks were by topicals, or, you know, vaping, or ingesting or juicing, or whatever they’re doing. And it’s really an intimate relationship. So people tend to differentially appreciate either the timing of onset or the tastes or again, other aspects of the route of administration. You know, oftentimes patients don’t want to get high. So that’s an immediate request oftentimes, especially from naive patients or new patients, and that would require certain routes of administration versus others. So I really do think it’s an individual process. And it will always be that way.
The Future of CBD and Cannabis Research
Absolutely. Where do you see the future of medical cannabis and CBD research for the US and also worldwide?
I think that there’s going to be more of it. There are different ways of conducting the science; there are different types of research methods that can be employed. I think through this traditional, randomized controlled trial, where you’re essentially testing the effects of one intervention or one product, for example, will take forever to be able to try to figure out these puzzle pieces and all the different players and so forth. So we alternatively are using a more observational type of research approach.
So again, with the use of technology like these apps, these mobile apps, we’re essentially able to gather vast amounts of information across many different characteristics of the plant, and then essentially look at real-time effects and associations with those characteristics. So by aggregating all this information rather than, you know, one specific thing in an iterative way, I think that we’re going to be better able to try to put together these puzzle pieces in a relatively quicker amount of time.
So we have to allow the last to loosen up. A lot of folks, they email me all the time and say, “Oh, the DEA changed their position. Now there’s a bunch of new research sites,” this and that. You know, I used to get excited about that stuff when I first started, but I’ve been at this too long. So my wife and I actually wrote a paper that was published in Science. And we were basically describing the restrictions and the challenges to conducting cannabis research and the low quality of the cannabis that’s available to research, and so forth. So there’s a lot of challenges to conducting this work but it’ll get done slowly.
I think it really takes a lot of courage as well. So as I mentioned, this is highly stigmatized. So I can go to a conference on cannabis research, and oftentimes the majority of the content is very negative. And those negative effects are oftentimes amplified. And this is the majority of the education that scientists and medical providers are provided thus far. So I have met zero medical providers that have suggested that they actually obtained some deep education on the endocannabinoid system or phytocannabinoids or anything in med school. None of the doctors that I know had obtained any actual formal education on cannabis. So it’s gonna take a while before those types of opportunities are institutionalized.
Obtaining and Using Cannabis for Academic Research
Right. It sounds like you’re definitely fighting against a certain paradigm and trying hard to shift that. I understand if this isn’t a question that you feel comfortable answering. But if it is, I’m wondering, where do you obtain the cannabis samples that you use in your research?
So, you know, about five years ago, when I first started this, I thought it would be very easy to do this work as long as you had a legitimate research question, and then everybody would be on board. And that came to realize basically how challenging it is to conduct a clinical trial, to get the permission to obtain the cannabis. And then after learning about, you know, the quality of the cannabis, even knowing researchers that have gone through the process waited 10 years, and finally got the cannabis only to find that it’s just really really poor quality.
After going through those experiences, I pivoted and started to just focus on observational types of research techniques. So an observational technique is essentially when you’re studying the real world as it exists. And there’s trade-offs with regard to different types of research methods. So the benefit of an experiment is that you could highly control everything. Presumably, you could identify with precision the intervention and the effects of that intervention. But the downside of an experiment is that just that — everything is artificial. And likewise, with regard to cannabis, there’s very little generalizability that can be obtained from studying any specific product.
So in contrast, an observational research technique is studying the real world as it exists, studying people’s natural behaviors. And with the use of some of this technology like mobile apps and so forth, you can obtain almost parallel information without having to give the participant the cannabis yourself. So I have no ability to give anybody cannabis in any way on this planet or in any role that I have as a patient and as providers, scientists, none of that. But what I can do is still focus on really important research questions by thinking about how to measure them in a different way. And that’s what our research team has been successful at doing. It’s basically thinking about the problem domain in a different way and trying to figure out how we can obtain scientific information with the current laws as they stand. And we’ve been blessed with the opportunity to make some ground without having to obtain the cannabis ourselves or give it to people.
Medical Cannabis in New Mexico
I see. Yes, thank you for explaining that process. I see. That is fascinating. And that it sounds like it is a great approach given that you are not able to obtain good samples of cannabis for research. So I’m aware that New Mexico has a medical cannabis program. That is correct, right? The State of New Mexico?
Yes. We do have a medical cannabis program ever since 2007.
So what is that like for you just as a resident of New Mexico? Do you see dispensaries around… are there outdoor grows as most of the cannabis produced in warehouses? I’m curious about this from a cultivators perspective.
Well, I think you see something very similar. You see all these CBD shops, you know, all over town. And now with the THC, you start to see the leaf and the neon signs and all that type of stuff. It’s interesting. There’s some research that suggests that introducing cannabis markets actually increases the home prices in nearby neighborhoods. So that’s kind of counterintuitive, but there’s some research that suggests that. You know, I think that exposing people just to seeing that leaf and exposing them to friends and family that have experimented with cannabis that are otherwise responsible people is slowly starting to dismantle that conditioning, as you referred earlier. And it’s been becoming more accepted.
So I think it’s just generally more accepted in the community than it is at my university. So times are changing. And I think that we’re at this watershed moment where enough of us feel that there can be some improvement.
And I think just using common sense, you know, you refer to those commercials where they’re talking about the side effects, which are supposedly the exact symptom that they’re supposed to treat. How does that make sense? And when you think about it, it doesn’t make sense. And, you know, it doesn’t take too much conspiracy theory to realize that there’s money in keeping people sick and treating them forever, rather than curing them. And unfortunately, there are so many powerful forces that have been against this plant for so long. And they’re not going to go away anytime soon.
Wrap-up and Contact Information
Absolutely. Unfortunately, you are correct with that. Money is a big player, you know, the biggest of all these days, it seems, and that is especially true in the pharmaceutical industry. So I wanted to thank you so much for your time and for sharing your knowledge with us today. And before we kind of wrap up, I just wanted to ask if there’s any sort of projects you’re working on that you wanted to share or anything that we haven’t touched on today that you’d like our listeners to know about you or the wonderful work that you do.
Well, thank you so much for your interest in our work. And I work with a broad team at the university and beyond. And essentially, because of the lack of federal funding, I created this mechanism, the Medical Cannabis Research Fund. It’s at mcrf.unm.edu. And it’s essentially a mechanism for folks to donate so that we can continue to do this work. I have to pay for pencils, I have to pay participants, and so forth. And essentially, I am trying to create a mechanism that allows me to get this work done for my community in a very unconventional way. And so far, we’ve been successful. And it’s just kind of part of what I feel is my fate, which is basically to give back to my community entirely by focusing on this full-time. So if folks want to visit the site, that’d be great. We also created a YouTube channel just to provide general education to the public. It’s called Cannabis Connection University. So they might want to check that out and I’m on a bunch of videos there dancing around like a monkey. But again, I’m in it to win it. And I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to serve my community, quite frankly.
Thank you so much for joining us today. I just wanted to remind our listeners that this has been an interview with Dr. Jacob Vigil. He is an associate professor in the Psychology Department at the University of New Mexico and he is working very hard to help shift the paradigm around medical cannabis research. Well, thank you so much for joining us.