Shalom Life | February 28, 2014

Meet Professor Mechoulam: The Father of Marijuana Research

The Professor speaks about his studies involving marijuana, and breaking the law in the name of science

By: Adam Van Heerden

Published: September 24th, 2013 in Health » Israel

Meet Professor Mechoulam: The Father of Marijuana Research

If you met him on the street, Professor Raphael Mechoulam might seem like any other Jerusalemite grandfather. But behind his serene smile and calming voice is the brilliant mind of the man who kick-started medical marijuana research in Israel and the world.

Since the inception of his research in the 60s, Professor Mechoulam has been nominated for over 25 academic awards, the most recent being the Rothschild Prize in Chemical Sciences and Physical Sciences in 2012.

I met Mechoulam in his office at the Hebrew University Medical Campus where he was enthusiastically preparing his next lecture, despite the fact that he officially retired over 15 years ago.

Mechoulam was born in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1930. He immigrated to Israel in 1949, after his father survived a Nazi concentration camp and his family was forced to live a pseudo-nomadic life wandering from one Balkan village to another in order to escape the anti-Semitic threat.

The Mystery of Cannabis

As a young post-doctoral student looking to make an impression at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, Mechoulam was in search of "important topics" to research. After reading the literature on cannabis he "was surprised to a large extent that while the active compound in morphine had been isolated from opium 100 years before and cocaine had been isolated from cocoa leaves at the same time, the active component of marijuana was unknown."

It was this mystery that incited Mechoulam to investigate the chemistry of cannabis in the early 60s.

“Marijuana is not an American Problem”

According to Mechoulam, "there was essentially nobody working on this at the time." With childlike amusement, he recalls being rejected for an NIH (National Institute of Health) grant on the grounds that "marijuana is not an American problem." He was told to return to them with "something relevant."

One year later the head of pharmacology (Dan Efron) at the NIH contacted Mechoulam. “Somebody important, maybe a senator” had called Efron and said, "my son was caught smoking pot, is it destroying his brain?" and in Mechoulam’s words "they didn’t have the foggiest idea what marijuana does."


Meanwhile, Mechoulam and his team had managed to isolate THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana. Recognizing this ground-breaking discovery, the NIH then "took the world’s supply of THC… 10 grams" and "smuggled it into the US." Mechoulam innocently adds, "I think they broke the law, maybe," and "for the first few years in the US, much of the research was done with the compounds they took from us." In return "they were very nice and I got a grant, which I’ve had ever since."

Israeli Beginnings

In a parallel occurrence, Mechoulam revealed to NoCamels that he too bypassed bureaucracy when attaining initial marijuana samples for research. "I also broke the law, I didn’t know that. I took it from the police and it turns out I should have got it from the Ministry of Health… but in a small country you go over there, and say 'sorry, I apologize' and they say 'well, that’s no problem'… you can always know somebody and that somebody may be a student of mine."

He recalls concealing 5kg of Lebanese Hashish on the bus ride back to the Weizmann Institute. Mechoulam highlights this as an example of a small country like Israel having more convenient conditions for cannabis research than the US. Mechoulam also assures me that since then his research samples have been obtained through the appropriate channels.

Legalize it?

Although Professor Mechoulam did not divulge his views on recreational marijuana use he is concerned about the ratio of THC to CBD in illicit marijuana. In one of his many research papers (Cannabis—A Valuable Drug That Deserves Better Treatment) Mechoulam writes: "most of the marijuana sold illegally today in the United States actually contains no CBD, or very low amounts of it."

He tells NoCamels that he has long been stressing the importance of CBD, which modulates the effects of THC. In the aforementioned article he says "cannabis with high CBD content is associated with fewer psychotic experiences than cannabis with low CBD content, and CBD attenuates the memory-impairing effects produced by THC."

Discovering the "Joy receptors" in the brain

Professor Mechoulam has devoted his life to investigating the chemical constituents of marijuana. By 1963, Mechoulam and colleague Yuval Shvo, established the structure of Cannabidiol (CBD), an important component of Marijuana. CBD had been previously isolated, yet little was known about its structure.

A year later, Mechoulam and Yehiel Gaoni isolated Δ9- tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, for the very first time. They continued to elucidate the structure and synthesise THC. Over the next years, Mechoulam and Dr. Habib Edery proceeded to synthesise other major compounds from the cannabis plant.

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