The first man to extract THC, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam’s research is changing medical perceptions on marijuana around the world.
Dr. Raphael Mechoulam is the father of modern marijuana. The first man to extract THC, Mechoulam’s research has triggered a wave of new science that’s changing medical perceptions on marijuana around the world. To this day, Mechoulam remains one of the most influential marijuana research activists out there.
In 2000, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam received the highest honor the state of Israel can possibly give. He was awarded the Israel Prize at 70-years-old. The Israel Prize is only given to those who have gone above and beyond in their fields, whose contributions have advanced the Israeli state in some way. Surprisingly enough, he earned this honor for his lifelong work in an area of study that has been long overlooked: cannabis research.
Mechoulam is the man who first discovered THC. He and another scientist, Dr. Yechiel Gaoni, first isolated the molecule in 1964. Since that time, Mechoulam’s team has not only isolated several more cannabinoids but has made some of the most important biochemical discoveries in the past several decades.
Though he has gone on to receive numerous awards for his discoveries, including the Rothschild Prize in 2012, Mechoulam’s beginnings were a little less extravagant. The chemist was born in 1930 to a Bulgarian Jewish family. Prior to WWII, his father was a doctor and head of the Jewish hospital in Sofia. Once anti-Semitism began to take hold in pro-German Bulgaria, Mechoulam and his family spent a few years traveling from village to village, where his father provided medical services to small communities in need.
At the height of the war, Mechoulam’s father was taken to a concentration camp. He was shortly released after a fire at the camp, and eventually the family made it’s way to Israel. In Israel, Mechoulam was able to study chemistry and eventually research pesticides during his time in the Israeli army. It was this research in biological chemistry that ultimately enabled him to begin his research on cannabis.
When Mechoulam settled on marijuana as his research subject, he faced one major challenge: where do you get large quantities of cannabis for study? The answer might surprise you. He got it from the police. Though a seemingly unlikely source, the he managed to score his first 5 kilos of hashish by going to a local police department. Once procured, he placed all of that hash into a bag and took it by bus back to the lab.
He may have gotten several strange looks during an awkward bus ride, but it was ultimately through the hashish collected by the police that Mechoulam and his team were able to finally extract delta-9-tetrahydrocannbidiol (THC) for the first time.
The scientist’s research was part of a key group of findings that lead to the unveiling of the endocannabinoid system. The cell receptor that THC binds to inside your body, the CB1 receptor, was initially isolated by Dr. Allyn Howlett of John Hopkins Universiy. Yet, it was Mechoulam’s team that finally found our body’s natural version of THC, anandamide.
In The Scientist, a documentary on the founding father of marijuana science by Zach Klein, Mechoulam explains: “It turned out that there is a whole system in the body which is involved around anandamide. And this in many respects parallels important systems that the body relies upon and this system is called now the endocannabinoid system.”
Turns out, the endocannabinoid system is responsible for regulating everything from our moods, sleep, and appetite to cognitive thought, energy metabolism, and ability to sense pain. Researchers all around the globe are still struggling to understand just how the endocannabinoid system works and what part it plays in a wide variety of diseases.
Why is studying cannabis so important? The compounds in the marijuana plant just-so-happen to fit into a key regulatory system in the body. This means that the herb has incredible therapeutic potential in a wide variety of ailments. Mechoulam’s discovery of key components in that system as well as in the marijuana plant have made him a key figure in the push for better, more effective medicines.
“Here we have a group of compounds,” Mechoulam tells Klein, “an endogenous system of major importance, it is not being used as much as it should be in the clinic, it is of great promise in the clinic. Let’s try to push it forward.”
But, Mechoulam’s work didn’t immediately arise from an interest in the cannabis plant itself. In fact, he’s only ever used cannabis once in his life. That one time was shortly after he isolated weed’s only psychoactive compound, THC. He and his colleagues dosed slices cake made by Mechoulam’s wife, Dalia, with 10mg of pure THC and gave them to friends at a party.
The result? Not only was THC indeed psychoactive, but the compound affected each person quite differently. As Mechoulam explains in The Scientist,
All of those who took THC were affected. But, surprisingly, they were affected differently. Some said: ‘well, we just feel kind of strange, in a different world, we want to sit back and enjoy. Another one said ‘nothing happens’, but he didn’t stop talking all the time. A third one said, ‘well, nothing’s happened’, but every 15-20 seconds he’ll burst out laughing. These effects are all well-known today. People are differently affected. In one case however, one of the participants got into an anxiety state. She felt, I believe, that her psychological guards are breaking down.
So, if Mechoulam himself isn’t entirely interested in using cannabis recreationally, why has he spent over half his life studying the plant? In an interview with Vice, he explains what first lead him to pioneer the field of cannabis research:
A scientist has to pick an original subject, one that doesn’t have another 50 people working on it. The subject must also be substantial and with social impact. Around that time, I read plenty of articles in English, Russian, French, and German to try to discover some unexplored problem, until I realized the scarce chemical knowledge about the compounds in cannabis. I found it very surprising: While morphine had been isolated from opium and cocaine from the coca leaf, no one had studied the chemistry of the marijuana plant. It was very odd.
Mechoulam hasn’t been able to stop since he first began working in marijuana science. He has now been in the field for over 50 years, and at his current age of 85, he’s still heavily involved in cannabis science activism. Mechoulam regularly does interviews, appears at international conferences in cannabinoid medicines, teaches courses at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and he is the Director of Global Research for Phytecs, a company which researches products targeting the endocannabinoid system.
The true value of Raphael Mechoulam’s contributions to the medical world unfold little by little as we continue to push for more cannabinoid research. The scientist’s discoveries were oft overlooked during the height of the War on Drugs. But, it’s now clear that the discovery of THC and the endocannabinoid system has made us profoundly more aware of the internal systems that allow us to function on a day-to-day basis. Finally, after over 50 years of work, Mechoulam’s findings are catching the eyes of mainstream research.
Have you ever heard of Raphael Mechoulam? Why do you think it’s taken so long for his research to catch on? Share your thoughts with us on social media or in the comments section below. We’d love to know what you think!