Dr. Raphael Mechoulam: The Father of Cannabis Research

The research of Dr. Raphael Mechoulam has provided much of the foundation for what we know about cannabis today.

By Heather Ritchie, Staff Writer for Terpenes and Testing Magazine

If Sir William O’Shaughnessy was the grandfather of cannabis, then Dr. Raphael Mechoulam is the father of cannabis. He is best known for his 1963 discovery of the structure of cannabidiol (CBD) and the isolation and synthesis of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). “Mechoulam’s total synthesis of cannabinoids eventually led him to the discovery of the human endocannabinoid system two decades later.”

Dr. Mechoulam was born on November 5th, 1930 in Sofia, Bulgaria. He was raised in a wealthy Jewish family that eventually had to leave their hometown because of antisemitism. To escape the threat, his family led a semi-nomadic life, wandering to and from various Balkan villages.

In 1949, the family moved to Israel after his father survived a Nazi concentration camp. Mechoulam was studying chemical engineering in college when he decided to switch his major to chemistry. His venture into the science of cannabis came naturally because of his fascination with research and inherent curiosity.

Dr. Mechoulam’s Early Cannabis Research

Initially, Dr. Mechoulam was interested in studying the active ingredients in cannabis while he was a post-doctoral student at the Weizmann Institute. He found it interesting that the active components of opium and cocaine were isolated a hundred years before, yet cannabis remained a mystery. Mechoulam conducted his first experiments at the beginning of the 1960’s using hash that he obtained from the leader of the investigative section of the Israeli national police.

Nobody was working on the secrets of cannabis at the time, and he was rejected for a National Institute of Health (NIH) grant because cannabis wasn’t deemed an American problem. They told him to return with something more relevant. After his team managed to isolate THC, the NIH recognized the importance of the discovery and eventually they gave him the grant.

It was through his experiments that he found the incredible medical and psychoactive potential in cannabis. Once he isolated CBD, Mechoulam was surprised by its medical efficacy. It could be used as a neuroleptic agent and to treat seizures and pain without the psychoactive effects.

Twenty years later, his synthesis of cannabinoids helped him uncover the endocannabinoid system. The cannabis industry is indebted to Mechoulam for discovering the relationship between human psychology and cannabinoids and for pushing the science into the mainstream. In 1992, Mechoulam found that people naturally make their own cannabinoids that are integral to the regulation of memory, pain, mood, and more. This is when he found anandamide, a fatty acid transmitter linked to many benefits, including the suppression of the proliferation of cancer cells.

Later Cannabis Research

Today, Mechoulam researches endogenous cannabinoids because he thinks they are the next step for cannabis research. They are a key connection in human biology and have significant medical potential. In 1998, Mechoulam and Shimon Ben-Shabbat presented the entourage effect. The entourage effect is the hypothesis that the natural components of cannabis, like terpenes and cannabinoids, combine synergistically to complement and enhance their therapeutic benefits.

Pharmaceutical companies used the entourage effect concept to reformulate the medications that they prepared with THC only to include an equal amount of CBD. These formulations achieved increased medicinal benefits. Scientists working on breeding specific chemovars of cannabis that treat certain health problems also utilize this concept.

Interestingly, despite his distinction in cannabis science, Mechoulam’s name isn’t often associated with mainstream discussions about CBD, THC, and the endocannabinoid system. He’s received awards, but it wasn’t until recently that he reached the greater masses.

He achieved the Israel Prize in 2000. Mechoulam has also received many awards for lifetime achievements and in 2012, the Rothschild Prize for his research on how natural compounds effect human behavior. Currently, he’s 86 and still teaches at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. An inspiration to many, Mechoulam’s research has helped solidify the foundation on which cannabis science has been erected.

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