The world lost a beacon of cannabis science this month. At 92, Raphael Mechoulam died on Thursday, March 9, leaving behind a legacy of research that has progressed our understanding of cannabis further, perhaps, than any person in history.
Often referred to as the “Father of Cannabis Research,” Mechaulam was a Holocaust survivor and trained as a chemist in post-Nazi Bulgaria. He focused his career on pharmaceutical and medical sciences — specifically, cannabis chemistry. He published more than 450 papers in his life, many of them exploring the chemical and pharmaceutical potentials of the cannabis plant.
And whether you know it or not, if you’re a cannabis user, aficionado, or just a fan of the plant, you’ve probably encountered his research. If you’re familiar with the endocannabinoid system, or “the entourage effect” (Weed Between the Lines, “All about those terpenes” May 27, 2021) then you’ve been touched by Mechoulam’s work. If you’ve ever used a product that contains isolated THC, CBG, or CBD, you can thank Mechoulam. He was studying this plant on a molecular level long before cannabis was destigmatized, back when the scientific community turned its nose up at anything concerning marijuana — before it was cool to study weed.
But Mechoulam saw the potential in this strange flower. And he saw an opportunity to explore its chemistry and medicinal effects.
In a 2014 interview with CNN, Mechoulam said, “Morphine had been isolated from opium in the 19th century, early 19th century, and cocaine had been isolated from coca leaves [in the] mid-19th century. And here we were, mid-20th century, and yet the chemistry of cannabis was not known. So it looked like [an] interesting project.”
So, in the 1960s he and a team of researchers at Hebrew University in Israel started doing rigorous scientific research on what, at the time, was one of the most persecuted drugs on the planet. He had to strike a deal with Israeli police to score the bud he and his colleagues wanted to study. According to The Jerusalem Post, Mechoulam had to carry five kilos of “superb, smuggled Lebanese hashish” on a bus from Tel Aviv to Rehovot, hoping he wouldn’t be stopped, arrested, and thrown in jail.
Then he got to work unraveling the mysteries surrounding the cannabis plant.
By 1964, Mechoulam had isolated the very molecule that makes cannabis psychoactive — he’d discovered tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). He then went on to discover and isolate cannabigerol (CBG), and cannabidiol (CBD). In 1992, Mechoulam discovered anandamide (named after the Sanskrit word ananda, meaning “bliss”). That fatty acid neuro-transmitter was the first endocannabinoid ever discovered. He then detailed how these molecules fit into the body’s internal cannabinoid receptors in his 1993 paper “Molecular characterization of a peripheral receptor for cannabinoids.” It was the first scientific description of the human endocannabinoid system.
Then, in 1999, he and Dr. Shimon Ben-Shabat published a paper that coined a term most cannabis users are familiar with today: the entourage effect. The two researchers proposed that the body receives different combinations of cannabinoids differently, suggesting that these molecules could interact and enhance medicinally specific effects of cannabis. Their idea has been touted — and debated (Weed Between the Lines, “The entourage illusion” February 24, 2022) — by growers, budtenders, cannabis doctors, enthusiasts, and advocates ever since.
Mechoulam’s work not only propelled our understanding of this outlawed plant and its chemical and medicinal properties; it helped move the needle on cannabis legalization in a very big way. Anecdotal evidence is great. But it doesn’t make a difference to lawmakers who’ve been supporting a drug war and cannabis prohibition for decades. Only real science can leverage them from their positions — and that’s exactly what Dr. Raphael Mechoulam gave us.