Raphael Mechoulam speaks to participants at the CannaTech conference, an international summit for accelerating cannabis innovation, in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv on March 7, 2016. Mechoulam is a leading figure in the medical cannabis research and serves today as the chairperson of the CannaTech conference (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

culture | 01.01.2022

Why the world’s most important cannabis scientist isn’t stoked on recreational legalization

Raphael Mechoulam is responsible for discovering THC and the endocannabinoid system.

Raphael Mechoulam is a pioneer in the world of cannabis. At 87, the Israeli scientist has been researching the effects of pot since the 1960s, long before most of the scientific community would bat an eye for weed, nevermind go to bat for it. Most of what we know about the mysterious plant, we know from Mechoulam. He is credited for discovering commonplace ideas such as THC, and the more niche but captivating endocannabinoid system, the receptors in the brain that respond to marijuana’s stimulation.

We reached out to Mechoulam for his thoughts on the fast-growing legalization of cannabis around the world. His hesitations may surprise you. Despite being one of the most prominent voices on the benefits of cannabis, the scientist thinks the growing popularity of marijuana could have some consequences for his work, like further blurring the line between recreational and medical use. “In my view, there should be a wide separation between the two uses,” said Mechoulam in an email to Herb.

As a rigorous scientist, terms like ‘medical marijuana’ are of little interest to Mechoulam as they’re too vague. “It does not tell us anything on the constituents and their level,” he said. Mechoulam prefers data, research, evidence.

An Israeli agricultural engineer inspects marijuana plants at the BOL (Breath Of Life) Pharma greenhouse in the country’s second-largest medical cannabis plantation, near Kfar Pines in northern Israel, on March 9, 2016. The recreational use of cannabis is illegal in the Jewish state, but for the past 10 years its therapeutic use has not only been permitted but also encouraged. (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Mechoulam’s interest in marijuana is chemical, not cultural. Many in the cannabis world know of his work, but fewer know that the scientist has never smoked weed. Correct, he’s never gotten high on his own supply.

“The use of recreational marijuana is a social issue,” said Mechoulam. “In democratic countries, social issues are decided by the general population. Thus tobacco, drinks with very high alcohol content or gambling are legal as the general population believes that they should not be prohibited, although they cause huge personal or social damage. If the population of a country believes that cannabis should be legal—regardless of any real or presumed problems—then it should be legalized. However, this legal change should not be based on medical use. It has nothing to do with modern medicine.”

While Mechoulam prefers that people don’t assume the legalization movement says anything about the science of cannabis, he is enthusiastic about the amount of work being done in his field compared to years prior. Reefer madness didn’t just keep weed behind closed doors, it kept it out of most research labs as well.

“We have very limited clinical knowledge based on clinical trials,” said Mechoulam. “I do hope that over the next few years we shall see the results of numerous such trials which will establish a strong base for cannabinoid medicine. In any case treatment with cannabinoids—pure, as mixtures or as extracts—should be seen as a medical issue and regulated as such.”

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