Meet the Cannabis Science Conference Fall Speakers: Dr. Riley Kirk on Psychedelic Research and Integration

Published on: 

Columns | <b>Cannabis Voices</b>

Let’s meet Riley Kirk, PhD, cannabis and natural product chemist, cannabis educator, and cannabis research scientist.

Cannabis Science Conference (CSC) Fall will be taking place in Providence, Rhode Island September 20-22nd. CSC Fall features several exciting tracks: analytical science, cultivation, medical cannabis, and psychedelics. With expert speakers coming in from around the country, we thought it was a great opportunity to introduce some of them and get a sneak peek into their presentations. Let’s meet Riley Kirk, PhD, cannabis and natural product chemist, cannabis educator, and cannabis research scientist. Dr. Kirk is an assistant adjunct professor at the University of Rhode Island and shares knowledge on cannabis science via social media platforms. She conducts consumer-relevant research for the cannabis industry and serves as a member on the New Hampshire Cannabis Advisory Board. Dr. Kirk is part of an exciting panel discussion in the psychedelics track titled “Barriers to and Learnings from Psychedelics Research” taking place on September 21st. Here, she shares her background in cannabis and psychedelics, some of her research interests, and a preview of her upcoming presentation.

Can you tell us about your background and how you got involved with cannabis and psychedelics?

Riley Kirk, PhD: My background is studying many different medicinal plants beyond just cannabis. As a natural product chemist, during graduate school, I studied hundreds of different traditionally used medicinal plants, and then towards the end of graduate school, I really started to focus on the hemp plant. It really became obvious to me how different and unique the cannabis plant was compared to other medicinal plants and the medical potential of this plant. I've been a cannabis user since I was 14 years old and I still am a daily cannabis user. I think there are so many benefits to this plant and I think it's misunderstood in a lot of culture.


After graduate school I started to educate on social media because I was working with the university in putting out some cannabis education for their certificate course. But it always frustrated me a little bit that it wasn't accessible to the general population and 1/3 of Americans are using cannabis products. We need to get more information out there as a harm reduction tool, but also as a general education tool on how every drug works in the body, including cannabis and cannabinoids. So, I started making videos on social media because it was around the time of COVID and there wasn't much else to do—I couldn't go in the lab. I decided I was going to make videos on TikTok, just to give it a try. And that really went well. People were receiving the information really well and just kept asking great questions. I still make content to this day on TikTok and I repost on Instagram and some other platforms as well. I also do research with industry professionals, taking the questions from TikTok and these other social media platforms, and then trying to answer them for the people in the laboratory and communicate that science as well. So, you get people interested in the process of science and they're involved in it—their opinion matters. It's really part of the whole process.

So, that's what I do now as well as teaching the graduate certificate course on cannabis at the University of Rhode Island. I'm an assistant adjunct professor and continue to put out the knowledge the best way I can, and then integrate into the psychedelic space. I think it's very intertwined with the cannabis space because a lot of people do use both substances for mental health conditions or even physical health conditions. That's something I've become more involved in researching more recently. I think that community really is yearning for a bit more knowledge on a lot of the subjects. I think there's a lot of traditional knowledge and that's so, so, so valuable. But if we want to see huge paradigm shifts in healthcare, we're going to need peer reviewed studies to really back up everything that our community already knows.

What are you most looking forward to at Cannabis Science Conference Fall 2023?

Dr. Kirk: I love reading research papers. I love learning what people are doing. But I love talking to researchers more than anything because there's some things that maybe we don't have enough evidence for that we can’t put into literature but it's something that researchers know. Or it's ideas that researchers have that maybe they don't have the bandwidth or the capacity in their laboratory. When talking to other people, you can build that network and start to work together with these other people. I'm excited to talk to other researchers, other medical professionals, other scientists, and really learn not just what's happening in the peer reviewed section, but also what's happening in general in the psychedelic and cannabis space.

Can you share a summary of the multidisciplinary panel presentation called “Barriers to and Learnings from Psychedelic Research”?

Dr. Kirk: There's going be a lot discussed and I'm not going try to talk about everything, but pertaining to the recent publication that our group put out, I think what we're really going to discuss is the importance of a global perspective of psychedelics and how it's not just a molecule interacting with your brain. It's really the whole experience, and we discuss how important naturalistic setting is. A lot of people don't want to be on hallucinogenic substances in a very sterile setting like a hospital. They'd much rather do it in a place that they're comfortable with. We know set and setting are so important in the psychedelic space and we also think that's important in the research space as well.

So, I think that will be discussed, but also the really important and significant endpoints that we're seeing in psychedelic research that you really don't see in any other types of research. Specifically, I'm talking about feelings of awe and mysticism and feeling that there's something greater than you. These aren't things that we can fully conceptualize, but we know that they've been felt in other instances, like religion, that builds together the part of community, and the part of integration, and having other people around you experiencing the same thing. I think we're going to talk about a lot of abstract thoughts, but of course we can also dive into the really unique therapeutic endpoints that cannabis and psychedelics provide that there really isn't any replacement for. So, I think that's going to be really important for PTSD, depression, and some of these kind of treatment-resistant conditions that we're seeing more and more data come out that we know the molecular mechanism for, we know it's legitimate. It really now is about destigmatization and enhancing clinical research to get physicians on board and to start really learning you know what is the best path forward to help these groups of people and their ultimate healing experience.

Stay tuned for more with Dr. Riley Kirk with our live video conference coverage taking place September 21-22, 2023 or join us in person to hear her talk as well as many others at the Cannabis Science Conference Fall in Providence, RI. Register today with code SUMMER40 to save 40%:!