In 1964, Raphael Mechoulam stunned the world with his groundbreaking research on cannabis when he successfully synthesized tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary active element in marijuana. Mechoulam’s pioneering work on THC paved the way for other developmental research on medical marijuana. The Israel-born professor stripped the global bias on the weed and gave people a glimpse on its chemical healing nature.
Take into consideration the predominant culture at that time when Mechoulam was doing his research on THC. During that decade, there was unsubstantial data and scientific information about cannabis, the world was divided over the use of marijuana for wrong reasons. It took guts to be a scientific agitator, to do a medical research on a controversial ‘illegal’ substance.
He was an idealistic post-doctoral student at the Weizman Institute in Israel where Mechoulam’s quest for a high-impact research begun. In his initial study, the young Mechoulam learned that while the active compound in morphine has been isolated from opium a century ago, the active component in cannabis remained unknown. It was that ‘mysterious unknown’ in marijuana that attracted Mechoulam to set his research towards that direction.
Like any researcher doing a groundbreaking work, Mechoulam was riding against the current, so to speak. Perhaps he was one of the few, if not the only one, who was leading a research on how to synthesize marijuana in the 1960s. The US National Institute of Health (NIH) rejected his research grant because ‘marijuana is not an American problem’ and was advised to return with a more relevant research proposal.
At the start of his research, Mechoulam admitted that he ‘broke the law’ by bypassing the Ministry of Health in order to obtain marijuana. Quite oddly - and even funny - , he got 5kg of Lebanese Hashish from a police officer and secretly concealed his stash during his bus ride back to Weizman Institute.
Together with a research colleague named Yuval Shvo, Mechoulam dedicated their career in investigating marijuana compounds and find a way to isolate its active ingredient. An initial breakthrough occurred when they established the structure of Cannabidiol (CBD), a vital element in the component of Marijuana. One year later, Mechoulam and Yehiel Gaoni successfully isolated Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. In the years that followed, Mechoulam with the help of other research colleagues, synthesized other major compounds from the marijuana plant.
Mechoulam had finally uncovered the unknown mystery that once lay deep in the compounds of marijuana. By doing so, he etched his name in history as the ‘father of marijuana’.
In an interview with Daily Bell, Mechoulam was asked: “What drove you to embark on such an idiosyncratic career? And now that you've been studying this plant for 50 years, what continues to fascinate you about it?”
To this, Mechoulam replied:
I saw nothing 'idiosyncratic' working on a topic which was basically a chemical one (at least at the beginning) but obviously had a social and medical significance. The only problem was that I had to fight academic bureaucrats at the Weizmann Institute until I moved to the more open Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
The work on the plant has now led to the identification of a major physiological system (the endocannabinoid system), which seems to be involved in many human diseases. The plant THC mimics compounds found in the brain, named endocannabinoids (anandamide and 2-AG), which we discovered in 1992 and 1995. These two endogenous brain cannabinoids are of immense importance in the working of our body. Related compounds we found more recently in the brain and in bones have to do with brain protection and even osteoporosis. Never a dull moment.
It was more than 50 years ago when Mechoulam published his article on the synthesis of THC in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. His research earned him accolades and awards from various sectors. Ironically, the US National Health Institute, the institution that once rejected his grant application, had awarded him numerous grants after his breakthrough research after his ‘THD success’.
Mechoulam’s work has become the foundation for subsequent researches on medical cannabis. His research has contributed in the development of drugs and medical compounds that address cancer, epilepsy, pain, inflammation and high blood pressure, among others.
At 84 years old, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam is still a professor in the Department for Medicinal Chemistry and Natural Products at Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School and School of Pharmacy, Institute for Drug Research. He won the Heinrich Wieland Prize in 2004 and Israel Prize in 2005.