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Dr. Jacob M. Vigil is an associate professor at the University of New Mexico’s Department of Psychology. His work in the field of cannabis research has led to a better understanding of the way cannabis affects patients’ health.
He recently co-authored two studies that have been making waves: “The Therapeutic Effectiveness of Full Spectrum Hemp Oil Using a Chronic Neuropathic Pain Model” and “The Effectiveness of Cannabis Flower for Immediate Relief from Symptoms of Depression.”
The Rolling Paper sat down with Vigil for a discussion about cannabis and mental health.
The Rolling Paper: It’s been a wild year. Has COVID affected research in any way?
Vigil: In general, it’s definitely halted just about every one of our projects that were collecting data. Not only has it messed up the cannabis research, but it’s really halted many lines of research throughout the country. COVID has affected everybody. I think that’s important to note. It’s not just affecting what we see.
But we have had access to data that we’ve already collected. In the past couple of years, we’ve put out some papers on cannabis’ effect on pain and depression, and then recently, anxiety from that data set. The reason why I mention those three conditions is because they are often comorbid, and people tend to experience multiple versions of those simultaneously throughout their life. They tend to be chronic in nature.
Those epidemics are increasing, and cannabis seems to have relatively similar effects, not only in its overall effects across those conditions, but in terms of—at least in our data—how THC seems to be most predictive of symptom relief. But those three conditions: depression, anxiety and pain.
Which are all problems that have become prevalent over the last year.
Yeah. That’s a natural fit, right? People are stressed out. You’ve got the natural immunodefensive and anti-inflammatory responses that cannabis has been evidenced to result in presumably mitigating that cytokine storm that is one of the mechanisms by which COVID tends to take over the body.
So you have not only some of these implicit effects at a systemic level, but you also have, presumably, the effects of THC and other psychoactive compounds that are able to penetrate the brain in areas that are important for our attention and for feelings, and that encompasses our emotions and pain.
How would it compare to more traditional pharmaceutical answers to those issues?
Well, I think that they’re all different. So, obviously, opiates have their place in society for acute pain. In other countries it’s usually used more for post-operative healing or for really severe acute pain episodes. So opiates will always have their place—at least contemporaneously until there might be something better—but for acute pain. Cannabis is really a substitute for treating mild-to-moderate or chronic pain. If pain is going to be ongoing forever with no hope of it mitigating, then it just makes sense that one wouldn’t want to subject themselves to the most severe consequential medication choice.
Compared to the anxiety and depression medications—I would say that the benefit of choosing cannabis there is that you have a fast-acting effect. That is different than most of those conventional classes of medication which often take a long time to come on. And most of those classes of medications also entail the side effect of suicidality, among a whole list of others. We have a huge data set of cannabis usage, and over 95 percent of those usage sessions resulted in the alleviation of those core symptoms: anxiety and depression. There’s no side effect of suicide with cannabis.
For patients looking to treat depression or anxiety, is there a specific cannabis product they should use—whole leaf, concentrates or edibles?
What we have found in general is that concentrates and flowers are superior for treating mental health issues in terms of the strength of the correlation between that product category and the symptom of relief.
Flower, in general, seems to be the most efficacious type of product that people generally use for mental well-being. Among different types of flower: What I can say with confidence—and not to distinguish sativas and indicas—moderate-to-high THC levels seem to be more strongly correlated with symptom relief of both anxiety and depression. Interestingly, in both of those separate studies, CBD levels were not correlated with symptom relief.
When you put these different variables into a regression, it allows the analysis to separate the amount of associations that are unique across the predictor variables—the characteristics—and the outcome variable—in this case, symptom relief. It basically looks at the association between CBD and symptom relief while holding THC levels constant. So irrespective of these other variables, it looks at these individual associations. And in these analyses, CBD appears to show no unique association with symptom level, and in some cases there was an inverse correlation. So the more CBD, the less relief of symptoms. I guess what I could attribute that to would be either inactivation of the CBD compound in terms of those visceral reports and how people are reporting it themselves, or fraudulent products.
There’s definitely plenty of evidence out there that cannabis is effective not only in treating anxiety, but also depression. This combats historical evidence that THC causes symptoms of paranoia and schizophrenia and so forth. And its combating historical evidence that depression is correlated with cannabis use.