Cannabis and Psychedelics Research: A Cannabis Science Conference West Preview with Dr. Denise Vidot

Columns | <b>Cannabis Voices</b>

Dr. Denise C. Vidot, an epidemiologist at the University of Miami and Founder of the International Cannabis & Psychedelic Research Collaborative, shares her research background, a small preview of her talk, “Co-Use of Cannabis and Psilocybin to Manage Mental Health Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic: Preliminary Results from the International COVID-19 Cannabis Health Study,” and more.

Cannabis Science Conference West, taking place May 18-20 in Long Beach, California, is quickly approaching. The two-day agenda is packed with exciting speakers from around the country as well as many prominent women moving the industry forward. In honor of Women’s History Month, we connected with Dr. Denise C. Vidot, an epidemiologist at the University of Miami and Founder of the International Cannabis & Psychedelic Research Collaborative. Here, Dr. Vidot shares her research background, a small preview of her talk, “Co-Use of Cannabis and Psilocybin to Manage Mental Health Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic: Preliminary Results from the International COVID-19 Cannabis Health Study,” and more. Dr. Vidot’s research focuses on the biological, psychosocial, and societal implications of cannabis and psychedelic use on human health across the lifespan. Join us in this special sneak peek into her talk scheduled for Thursday, May 19 from 3:30-4:00 p.m.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became interested in the cannabis industry?

Dr. Denise Vidot: Yes. Well, first of all, I am a cannabis epidemiologist at the University of Miami. I am a very passionate researcher that focuses on the brain, heart, and gut axis. I'm sure I'll be talking about that later, but it's important for me to start with that, because literally every piece of research that I conduct, whether it's regarding cannabis or psychedelics, is really to characterize how important that brain, heart, and gut axis is.

Can you tell us about your research related to cannabis, and have any of your findings surprised you?

Dr. Vidot: Where do I even start? In my research, as an epidemiologist, I have the luxury of being able to study multiple diseases and illnesses at the same time. One of the most exciting findings is showing up over multiple studies—so it's not just one study that is showing this—but I'm sure everyone has heard the hypothesis or the stigma that cannabis gives you the munchies and you're just sitting on the couch, you know, that stigma that we are used to seeing in popular media. Well, I have to bust the popular media's bubble because the data suggests otherwise. In fact, some of my studies are showing that cannabis consumers have a lower prevalence of metabolic syndrome, the risk factors that lead to cardiovascular disease. So, I would say lots of findings surprise me, but that's one that immediately jumped to my head because it directly goes against what the stigma of cannabis is.

How did your work in the cannabis industry lead you to your research and work with psilocybin?

Dr. Vidot: That's a really interesting story. I've been studying cannabis for over 11 years now. So, if we just picture what the industry looked like 11 years ago, I mean, I don't even know if we would be having this conversation 11 years ago. Right? Just to paint the picture, I was at the University of Miami. I felt like I was in a silo, really, as the only cannabis researcher. Of course, nobody really called it cannabis 10 years ago, it was all marijuana or weed. So, I was known as the “weed doc.” But throughout that, working with this highly stigmatized plant, I've noticed, even throughout the years, that some of the participants were mentioning that they were using other substances, such as fungi or natural remedies, and one of those was mushrooms. At the time, I didn't really know much about that. I was so focused on making sure that I could do cannabis research at the university, for example. I was very focused on that.

Then, of course, the pandemic hit, and at that time, I was like, “Well, you know what? I could die tomorrow.” I'm just being completely honest with everyone. As epidemiologists, we were the front-line counters of who had COVID and all the ways that we can prevent it. In my mind, I was thinking, “Hello, cannabis.” When we started to see all these mental health outcomes, I also started paying attention to what psychedelics could do. So, it was during that study, the International COVID-19 Cannabis Health Study, that we started asking questions about psychedelics for the first time in a structured way. I've been studying it non-structured through patient conversations and qualitative interviews, but this was the first time that we standardized the way that we collected the data.

What were patients saying when you when you started seeing those results? What kind of reports were coming in?

Dr. Vidot: Well, it’s funny because some of the patients that were part of some of my other studies said “Dr. Vidot, I'm glad you're finally asking this question.” And I jokingly said, “Oh, well, you should have told me.” Some of the accounts that we were getting [from respondents] was that psychedelics were helping them cope with the uncertainty of the pandemic and giving them opportunities to be more within themselves. Some of the data (which I know I'm going to talk about at the conference, so I hope everyone's going to be coming because I'm going to give it hot off the press) actual hardcore data that's being analyzed as we speak by our analysts shows what psilocybin in conjunction with cannabis actually did when it came to generalized anxiety disorder and depression. I can tell you now that preliminary results are showing that those who consumed both cannabis and psilocybin had a lower prevalence of major depressive disorder based on their self-reported measures.

Did those patients report on how much they were taking of both or either one?

Dr. Vidot: Unfortunately, for the psychedelics, we did not get the dose or even the frequency. We just know, yes or no, within the past 30 days or past year. With the cannabis, we do know the number of days and the amount or dose. We also have information about the cannabinoids that were consumed. So, in the next study, we're going to be a lot more strategic about how we ask those questions.

As you mentioned before, at this year's Cannabis Science Conference West you'll be speaking about the “Co-Use of Cannabis and Psilocybin to Manage Mental Health Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic: Preliminary Results from the International COVID-19 Cannabis Health Study.” Can you share a little bit more of what inspired you to present on this topic and what you're most excited to share with people that are attending?

Dr. Vidot: Yes. Well, what inspired me to talk about this was when I was at the Cannabis Science Conference East in the fall of 2021, when I gave a presentation there. It was actually my first time being live at a conference after COVID. So, I look forward to that energy of all the scientists, all of us together and really, we built a family at this conference. Now, I don't even see myself not going to that conference anymore because I just get so excited. It was there that I saw Josh Crossney, who's the founder and now Director of Cannabis Events at MJH Life Sciences. He had a sign “Coming soon, psychedelics and cannabis,” and I was like, “Oh wow!” Now my research has a space to be shared because before I didn't. You hear a lot about cannabis research, you hear a lot about psychedelics, especially now. Everyone wants to talk about psychedelics suddenly, right? Who's talking about the co-use, you know, and who's talking about it in a way that's not stigmatized? Because the times that I do hear about cannabis and psilocybin being used together, it's usually, “Oh, don't do that,” or, “There is no data about that.” Well, somebody has to start collecting that data. And that's what I'm so excited, and that's why I chose that topic, because we have multiple studies on the topic in our lab.

We're also studying some synthetic versions which are not my favorite. I, of course, appreciate nature best. But I chose this topic because the passion that I felt from the audience during the Cannabis Science Conference in the past shows me that this is the audience that I'd like to show this data to for the very first time, because this data is going to be published. But to be able to share it live in front of this audience, I think is the best. I chose this topic in particular because we have multiple measures in that study, but I also chose this topic because, as a globe, all of us have PTSD, let's be real. And that PTSD needs to be managed because over time, as we know, it will compound. And if I have it my way as an epidemiologist, I will not let people who hear my voice let that compound because there are ways to take action, and those ways include nature.

Are you studying any other psychedelics or just psilocybin?

Dr. Vidot: Yeah, we're studying ayahuasca. That's self-reported. It's nowhere near as extensive as our psilocybin work. We are also studying ketamine. I collaborate very closely with Dr. Michelle Weiner in South Florida, and we have two ketamine studies. In fact, we are getting ready to start disseminating the results here shortly, where we're comparing intramuscular and oral administration and lots of fun things.

So, you've seen people responding in that they're using psilocybin, and part of that came about because of your COVID-19 research. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, your research kind of fast tracked in this area. Do you think it would have eventually reached this point even without the pandemic, or is it too hard to say?

Dr. Vidot: That is a fantastic question. I think that the speed at which the mental health outcomes that my laboratory is analyzing and disseminating may have been accelerated based on the fact that there's a pandemic. But I believe that our lab would have been focusing on this either way, but most likely, we would have been focusing more on the physical health outcomes of psilocybin. We haven't even talked about that yet, but I have a whole other branch in our lab that's focused on what is psilocybin doing to the heart rate and how is it dealing with inflammation based on actual inflammation markers from the blood? So, to directly answer your question, I do believe that the pandemic accelerated our mental health branch of the laboratory in regard to our psilocybin research. And it's a little sad for me to say that as a reality, but that's where we are today.

What important information do you hope attendees will gain from your presentation that they wouldn't know otherwise?

Dr. Vidot: Oh, number one, that not all cannabis is created equal, and already my hypotheses are showing that not all fungi are equal. I think that if attendees don't remember anything else from what I say, I just want them to leave knowing that it is important to understand what type of cannabis is being consumed, and also, it's important to understand that psilocybin, psychedelics, in general, it's not just about taking the fungi or taking the substance. Integration is so important, and I'm talking about pre-integration, during integration, and post integration. So, we're going to talk a little bit about that during the presentation as well.

Do you face any unique challenges with researching cannabis and psychedelics?

Dr. Vidot: Yes, that is the definition of what we are facing. I think that if anyone wants to study cannabis and psychedelics, you, first of all, you have to have passion. You have to have a good why. And I know that sounds pretty cliché because everyone's always like, “What's your why?” But really, if you are not passionate for the right reason, when it comes to cannabis research and psychedelic research, you can easily get caught up. And when I say caught up, what does that mean? Getting caught up in the wrong, or trying to do the wrong types of studies without reason. I also think that the regulatory guidelines make it challenging, especially for the type of research that I want to do.

I always talk about how my collaborators and I have multiple protocols and grants already written so that when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) allows us (and, yes, I mean allows us), to conduct randomized controlled trials, with cannabis in particular, we're ready to go. So, I would say that's the biggest challenge. And then also the stigma. You know there is the plant stigma and then the reality of the world that we live in today. I am a young Latina, well, I present as a young Latina woman, but I am a cannabis and psychedelic epidemiologist researcher with a large lab. I think that stigma beyond cannabis sometimes also makes it challenging to conduct research and be taken seriously.

Do you want to share any experiences of how you got to where you are?

Dr. Vidot: Sure, I can definitely talk about that. I'm the eldest of seven children. A true Puerto Rican here. I'm so close to my father. My father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer, common variable immunodeficiency disorder, and also scleroderma. Those are three incurable diseases that are chronic, and the mortality rate is not to be discussed with smiles. Right? So, seeing my father go through all of that, the opioid fog, the chemo, all these pharmaceuticals getting thrown at him, every time he had a negative side effect, “Oh, don't worry. There's a pill for that.” It wasn't until he started consuming cannabis. Cannabis is what helped him.

When I was in high school, I saw that. I also saw the stigma related to that. So, in short, watching my father go through that as well as watching some other social injustices happen in my neighborhood regarding cannabis really inspired me to say, “What can I do?” I have always been very passionate about science, even at a young age. So rather than be a physician, who basically just practices what the researchers tell you, I decided I wanted to do research and prove to the world that there is evidence that suggests that cannabis is not a gateway drug. Cannabis is not going to do all these things that Reefer Madness and all these other stigmas that propaganda has shown us.

Do you have any advice for other researchers who might want to conduct similar studies?

Dr. Vidot: Don't quit. Immediately, that's my first thing. Don't quit. I've found that the more pressure and more resistance that I get, that means I'm onto something. So, I would encourage any other researcher, especially in the cannabis space—I'm still new to psychedelics, so it's a little irresponsible for me to communicate about that—but especially for the cannabis space, stay strong. If you are at a university or an area that cannabis research is not taking place, look for those who are. At the University of Miami, as I mentioned, 11 years ago no one else was doing cannabis research. So, what did I do? I was following the Dr. Meg Haneys of the world at Columbia University. I was just looking at their research, trying to email them, and asking if I could volunteer in their labs.

I have a very open-door policy in my laboratory, for example. So, if you're interested in getting your hands wet in some cannabis or psychedelic research, feel free to email me. But it just takes emailing someone because, especially I've noticed in the cannabis and psychedelics space, we're open, especially if you show passion or that you're excited for the right reason and not just trying to make millions. Let's be honest, you already know there's a sector that's in it for the money. But overall, stay strong and don't quit. It's worth it.

Do you want to share a little bit about your talk from the Fall Cannabis Science Conference on the brain, heart, and gut axis?

Dr. Vidot: Yes, as a matter of fact, that study is still going on. But the results are very similar, though so that's good news. At the last conference, I spoke about cannabis and the impact on the brain, heart, and gut axis. I showed how different types of cannabinoids can have different outcomes on multiple organs. I also summarized how every single one of us has an endocannabinoid system. And that system is why cannabis can influence our mental and physical health. Just as a little teaser here, I want to mention that one of my next endeavors or what I'm working on right now is trying to understand how psilocybin in particular engages with the endocannabinoid system. Some people are like, “Oh, no, Denise, you know, Dr. V, you're crazy. That's cannabis.” Okay—you heard it here first. That's what I'm looking at.

What is next for your research with cannabis and psychedelics? Do you want to share any other future work you're planning?

Dr. Vidot: Right now, we're also planning next stages for studies. A lot of our work, especially in the psychedelic space include a lot of pilot studies, so we’re trying to disseminate that evidence to prove that we should do a larger study. So, right now, we're getting ready to relaunch our psychedelic study on COVID, but this time, asking those questions about the dosing, asking questions about what their pre- and post-integration practices were, if any.

We're definitely looking deeper into the long-term impact of psychedelics and cannabis during COVID, because as we know, the situation, when you have COVID is one thing, but what happens four months after COVID, when you're still having some mental fog? What happens a year after COVID? What happens five years after COVID? We don't know yet, but our laboratory is setting up an infrastructure up so that we can study that and be able to answer those questions, so that if another pandemic comes at least we'll know. We'll have that data of what happened last time, because as of this point, we don't have data on psychedelics and past pandemics, past illnesses of this caliber.

So, in short, my laboratory is focused on creating a foundation for longevity and sustainability. It's my goal to make this a transgenerational type of study so that even after I leave this time construct, it's continuing and growing.

Is the study nationwide?

Dr. Vidot: The study is global, actually. Yes, it was an internet-based study, and I have collaborators in multiple countries and we, basically, collaborated together and dispersed it. So, as of the last time that I looked at the numbers, we have over 3000 participants, and I would say about 1000 of them are not in the United States. The majority of the global respondents are from New Zealand, Canada, United Kingdom, and there's one other country that had many respondents that I can't recall off the top of my mind now.

Where can patients go if they're interested in joining the next phase?

Dr. Vidot: They can look up a bit.ly link, it’s very easy to remember. It is bit.ly/cannabiscovid and that'll bring you straight to our survey, and you can fill it out.

So back to the conference, what are you most excited to learn at the Cannabis Science Conference West?

Dr. Vidot: I'm excited to learn how my friends, colleagues, and collaborators are being innovative in this field of psychedelics and cannabis. You know, especially with COVID. We keep talking about this, but, you know, with COVID, I feel that science blossomed so fast. It exploded, right? I'm just so excited to watch them live, present their research and knowing what our colleagues were going through during the pandemic, trying to still conduct research, trying to help our patients, helping our study participants. So, it's kind of like a show and tell of the family. Let's see what we got, you know, so I'm really excited and I know I keep saying that, but really, I'm just excited to get back and network and see the cannabis and psychedelic family.

What do you hope to see happen in the next five years regarding cannabis and psychedelic research?

Dr. Vidot: Well, regarding the next five years with research, I would like to see lots more studies going on in our lab. No, just kidding. But for real, I would like to see rigorous studies. I would like to see more randomized controlled trials. This would require, of course, the removal of the federal block against cannabis and scientists. But for sure, I would love to see randomized controlled trials. And with psychedelics, I would like to see scientists be authentic. I would like to see scientists that are not just making assumptions and making sure that they're making strategic, intentional research, because this is not a game. I know we should approach any type of research as not a game. You know, life is not a game. Right now, we are at a point in time where it's so pivotal on how we treat psychedelics, especially with how we know it happened with cannabis. Let's not do the same thing with psychedelics, please.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Dr. Vidot: I guess the last thing I'd like to add is for anyone who is listening, who is not sure if they're going to come or not, or even if you are going to go, please make sure you stop by and say hello. Just say hello to me because there's nothing better than making these connections because you never know who you say hello to. If 10 years from now, and number one, if you're going to see them again or in the future, you're going to collaborate. There are some people who, you know, I met five years ago and now we talk all the time doing research and I never imagined that we would, so be sure to say hello.

Please join Dr. Vidot at the Cannabis Science Conference West on May 19 from 3:30 to 4:00 p.m. in the Psychedelics Track.

Watch this interview as a video here.