#124 – Mental Health and Cannabis with Dr. Jacob Vigil
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.