As a smiling 84-year old lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, interacting with young students on a daily basis, Raphael Mechoulam doesn’t appear to stand out from the crowd. To the everyday man, he is simply part of the faculty at one of the most respected educational facilities in Israel.
However, the Bulgarian born professor is perhaps the most prominent figure in the world of cannabis research; his ground breaking discoveries in the 1960’s are the basis for every single piece of research conducted today. Mechoulam has, albeit indirectly, potentially saved the lives of thousands through his life’s work and is still known to this day as the “Father of Cannabis”.
In an 2012 interview with NoCamels.com, Mechoulam stated that as a young student at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, he wanted to find an ‘important topic of research’ that had yet been studied. He noted that 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, yet the active compounds in marijuana were unknown”.[ref]http://nocamels.com/2013/09/professor-raphael-mechoulam-the-father-of-marijuana-research-talks-to-nocamels-about-his-studies-and-breaking-the-law-in-the-name-of-science/[/ref]
In 1963, Mechoulam acquired marijuana illegally and began to de-construct the plant with a team of scientists. It did not take long before the then 32-year-old had managed to isolate CBD, a non-pyschoactive compound in cannabis.
Having been turned down by the National Institute of Health, with them stating that “Marijuana is not America’s problem”, Mechoulam continued to work unfunded to discover what other compounds made up the plant.
By 1964, the National Institute of Health had permitted Mechoulam and his staff to research further. This turn around in opinion by the NIH came via a request from a US Senator, who caught his son smoking cannabis and demanded to know how the psychoactive compounds could affect the human body.
After a further year’s work, Mechoulam had managed to isolate tetrahydrocannabinol for the first time in history, naming it the key psychoactive compound in cannabis. When Mechoulam notified the NIH of his discovery, his entire supply of THC was taken from him for further studies in America. Mechoulam was given a grant for his research and compliance, which he still holds to this day.
Despite his major scientific discovery being taken away from him, Mechoulam refused to halt research, instead turning to the human body rather than the cannabis plant.
Over the following years, Mechoulam and his team discovered key components of the endocannabinoid system. Firstly, two of his postdoctoral researchers discovered Anandamide, an endogenous cannabinoid neurotransmitter that directly interacts with CB receptors in the human body. Another enogenous cannabinoid, 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) was then discovered by one of Mechoulam’s PHD students.
Over the past 50 years, it is almost impossible to count just how many breakthrough discoveries in cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system can be attributed to Mechoulam and his team. However, with countless awards, 350 publications and thousands of hours spent in the laboratory, it is safe to say that Ralph Mechoulam deserves to be celebrated as the single greatest cannabis researcher in history.