Married scientists conduct innovative cannabis research at UNM

UNM researchers are using a mobile phone app to analyze the real-time effects of cannabis therapy. The app, called Releafapp, allows cannabis users to record the form of cannabis they are using as well as the real-time effects they experience.

Interface with the Releef app for measuring cannabis on symptom change. Graphic courtesy of Jacob Vigil.

The research team, Dr. Jacob Vigil and Dr. Sarah See Stith, discovered that the therapeutic effects of THC are greater than CBD, the cannabinoid more popularly used to treat pain.  They published the groundbreaking research last year.

THC and CBD are the most prominent cannabinoids found in the cannabis. THC is the chemical most commonly associated with the high given after consuming cannabis.

“It allows us to capture information under naturalistic circumstances,” Vigil said, “which is something that no experiment can ever do.”

Dr. Jacob Vigil is a associate professor in Psychology at the University of New Mexico. He is also the founder of the Medical Cannabis Research Fund. Photo by Makayla Grijalva/ Advance at UNM

This dataset allows the pair to analyze the effects of the many different types of cannabis products that are available, including the various strains of cannabis plant that can be used for medical reasons.

“We have been working with that data to see how those different product characteristics affect people with different types of symptoms, types of side-effects, even looking at how people learn to experiment with and effectively use cannabis,” Stith said.

Stith estimated that through the app, the pair has access to a dataset that is approaching 100,000 individually logged sessions.

This is the largest dataset cataloging the real-time effects of cannabis users in the United States according to Vigil.

“It’s a really unique data set.” Stith said. “I don’t know of any other app or any other medication that is tracked in this way, where you have real-time assessments.”

Stith said that they have tried, unsuccessfully, to get federal funding from agencies such as the National Institute of Health, to expand the app to measure different types of drugs as well, such as alcohol, tobacco, and opioids.

Vigil and Stith have a very different relationship than most research colleagues they have been married for 3 years and met through their similar research interest cannabis.

Dr. Sarah See Stith is an assistant professor in the UNM economics department. She is a researcher with the Medical Cannabis Research Fund, founded by her husbandDr. Jacob Vigil.

“It’s like you get twice as much bang for your buck in terms of our efforts,” Vigil said. “Just to understand the types of stressors that our spouses are going through — they are unique in academia and unique depending on the type of scientific research and responsibilities that people have. That understanding goes a long way.”

The two PhDs met after Stith heard about the cannabis research being pursued by a psychology professor at UNM, who was Vigil. Stith said she was interested in the regulatory side of the drug with her economics background and reached out to him. Not only did the research area fascinate her, but she and Vigil also eventually fell in love and married.

“And well, we’ve been working on many projects ever since then,” Stith said.

“I consider it all fate. And pretty much everything going forward is driven by God’s hands,” Vigil said.

In total, the couple has worked over a dozen research projects together so far and have several in the works as well. Nearly all of the projects they have worked on have been supported by the University of New Mexico Medical Cannabis Research Fund (MCRF).

Vigil founded the MCRF in 2016 because he saw the community asking for this type of research to be done.

“I guess I decided to pursue this full time because I saw the obvious need out there in our community,” Vigil said. “And that nearly everybody seems to be experiencing some degree of secondary victimization of the conventional health care, specifically the types of pharmaceutical medications, that are usually pushed upon us.”

Vigil feels that the MCRF will assist local and remote communities in benefitting from the “pioneering, courageous…and certainly innovative work that various sincere researchers… have agreed to pursue.”

“I think that through the medical cannabis research fund…we’ve been gathering a group of researchers who really have a broad skill set,” Stith said.  “We can do pretty much any kind of study that needs to be done.”

The MCRF is supported by donations from the private sector. Securing a federal grant to fund cannabis research is very difficult due to the continuing stigma of the drug in academia, Vigil said.

“The public sector has not a lot of money that they want to invest in actual medical innovations…and in this case, looking at therapeutic effects of cannabis,” Vigil said. “This initiative was designed to tap into that private concern and ability to support the types of research that the federal government has largely restricted from financial sponsorship.”

Because they operate through funds from the private sector, Vigil believes that the MCRF is more cautious to how money is spent while conducting their research.

“The fact is, we could conduct a study with $1,000 that otherwise would be charging the government a million dollars for something very similar,” Vigil said.

Vigil plans for the fund to eventually be transformed into a research institute at UNM.

Through the MCRF, Vigil and Stith have several research projects in the works, including looking at the specific effects of cannabis usage though the dataset collected by the app, projects focused on specific patient populations, and basic research on the effects of cannabis in healthy and clinical populations.

“At the end of the day, we have so much data and so much going on that it has emerged into an entirely different model of academia that thus far has been successful,” Vigil said.