Raphael Mechoulam, the Israeli chemist who first isolated THC, died in his home. He was 92 years old.
The American Friends of the Hebrew University confirmed his death. Mechoulam had been a professor at the university since 1966.
Who Was Raphael Mechoulam?
Raphael Mechoulam was an Israeli organic chemist and professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Cannabis research and Mechoulam are essentially synonyms.
This, of course, is likely due to his discovery and isolation of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive component of cannabis.
In the 1960s, Mechoulam and his research team were the first to identify and synthesize THC.
This not only illuminated the chemical structure and pharmacology of cannabis but eventually led to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system.
Medical cannabis wouldn’t be a thing without Mechoulam’s work. His work earned him the title “the father of cannabis research.”
Throughout his career, Mechoulam received numerous awards and honours for his contributions to the field of cannabis research, including the Rothschild Prize in Chemical Sciences and Physical Sciences, the Israel Prize in Exact Sciences, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Cannabinoid Research Society.
Why Did He Study Cannabis?
Raphael Mechoulam’s interest in cannabis began in the 1960s when a cultural shift embraced the plant. But Mechoulam was more interested in science than culture.
“Morphine had been isolated from opium in the 19th century, early 19th century,” Mechoulam said in a 2014 interview. “Cocaine had been isolated from coca leaves 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.”
His team isolated THC and its effects on the brain and body. They also isolated other cannabinoids and their effects, including cannabidiol or CBD.
“I was surprised to note that an active compound had apparently never been isolated in pure form,” Mechoulam said. “And that its structure was only partially known. Even the structure of a major crystalline component, cannabidiol (CBD), which had been isolated more than two decades previously, was not fully elucidated.”
And while known as the father or grandfather of cannabis research, Mechoulam also researched the pharmacology of the khat plant, which many people in East Africa and the Middle East often use as a stimulant.
In the West, manufacturers often synthesize it into cathinones or “bath salts.”
“Most of the human and scientific knowledge about cannabis was accumulated thanks to Professor Mechoulam,” Asher Cohen, the president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said in a statement. “He paved the way for groundbreaking studies and initiated scientific cooperation between researchers around the world. Mechoulam was a sharp-minded and charismatic pioneer.”
How Did Mechoulam Study Cannabis?
“When we started work many years ago, there was essentially no interest in cannabinoids,” Mechoulam said in a 2019 interview.
He applied for a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States in the 1960s. They told him that Americans aren’t interested in “marijuana.” That it’s something only Mexicans use.
Eventually, the NIH reversed course and supported Mechoulam’s research. But this general attitude that cannabis was irrelevant in the 1960s shows that the NIH has always been out of touch.
The current head of its drug abuse sector is the great-granddaughter of Leon Trotsky. She has a clear bias toward the brain-disease model of addiction. Because of one person’s values, funding for research goes one way. It becomes like an ideology.
For Mechoulam living in Israel, where cannabis was also illegal, he made contacts within police departments for a steady supply. As he said in an interview, “I didn’t have a car at the time. I was on the bus carrying five kilos of hashish. People were just saying, ‘It’s kind of a strange smell.’ We tested that on a few volunteers, including ourselves.”
As Mechoulam wrote in the Annual Review, he and his team “extracted the hashish and, by repeated column chromatography, were able to isolate about 10 compounds — most of them unknown — and elucidate their structures.”
In 1980, he was in Brazil conducting CBD research on people with epilepsy. Within a few months, he and his team found that none of the people in the study reported seizures.
Of course, it’s always sad to hear about the passing of a great scientist and innovator like Mechoulam. We will remember his contributions to cannabinoid research for years to come.
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