On March 9th, 2023, the cannabis community lost one of its most significant scientific contributors. Professor Raphael Mechoulam was widely known as the “father of cannabis research,” making numerous groundbreaking discoveries about the plant’s chemical properties and potential medical applications. His accomplishments included but were not limited to the isolation of the most popular and controversial cannabinoid — delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Mechoulam’s Early Life and Education
Raphael Mechoulam was born in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1930. His father was a doctor and managed a hospital in Europe. Although his family suffered under Hitler’s regime (including his father being sent to a concentration camp), they all survived the events of WW2 and were fortunate enough to continue with their lives afterward. Then, in 1949, his family immigrated to Israel.
Mechoulam went on to study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he earned his master’s degree in organic chemistry and later his PhD. After completing his studies, he spent time researching at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in the United States before returning to Hebrew University in 1965. From there, he went on to become a Professor of Medicinal Chemistry.
The Isolation of Cannabinoids
It was during his time in the Hebrew University School of Pharmacy that Mechoulam began to investigate the chemical properties of cannabis. In 1964, he and his team were the first to isolate tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and clarify its molecular structure. These discoveries paved the way for further research into the effects of cannabinoids on the human endocannabinoid system.
Mechoulam’s work on cannabis didn’t stop with the isolation of THC. He and his team went on to isolate and elucidate other cannabinoids, including cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN), and to investigate their potential therapeutic applications. Mechoulam was the first to describe the structure of CBD and discovered its anticonvulsant properties, which led to the development of the first CBD-based medication for epilepsy.
He is also frequently credited for the discovery of the endocannabinoid system, a complex network of receptors and neurotransmitters that regulate many physiological processes in the body. Along with the ECS itself, Mechoulam and his colleagues identified the first, endogenous cannabinoid, anandamide. This cannabinoid naturally occurs in mammals and interacts with our cannabinoid receptors much like THC.
The Legacy of Raphael Mechoulam
Raphael Mechoulam’s contributions to the study of cannabis and cannabinoids have had a significant impact on medicine and society as a whole. His discoveries have led to the development of new medications for conditions such as epilepsy, chronic pain, and multiple sclerosis. Mechoulam’s work has also helped to destigmatize cannabis use and has contributed to the legalization of medical marijuana in many countries around the world.
In addition to his scientific achievements, Mechoulam was a strong advocate for medical cannabis research and worked to promote a greater understanding of the plant’s potential benefits. He received numerous awards and honors for his contributions to the field, including the Harvey Prize in Chemical Engineering, the Rothschild Prize in Chemical Sciences, and the Heinrich Wieland Prize.
At the age of 88, Professor Mechoulam believed that cannabis held the secrets to natural medicines capable of replacing pharmaceutical synthetics such as opioids and steroids. Like many of us in the cannabis community, he felt the plant could be unlocked to manufacture safe therapies to treat the lion’s share of our most common ailments.
Memorializing a Life Dedicated to Cannabis
Raphael Mechoulam’s work has had a significant impact on destigmatizing cannabis, and his legacy continues to inspire new research and innovation in the field of cannabinoids. And just as Mechoulam was connected to our world through family, war, science, and community — he believed the various fields of science are and should be connected. In support of this ideal, he was quoted saying,
The separation of scientific fields is just an admission of our limited ability to learn and understand several scientific areas . . . If a leaf and a tree were able to think, they would not know the difference between chemistry and biology.(2007). Conversation with Raphael Mechoulam. Addiction, 102(6), 887-893. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1360-0443.2007.01795.x
We don’t just celebrate the life of Professor Mechoulam because of his scientific achievements — but also for the way he embraced every aspect of life. Like his father before him, he wanted to make the world a better place through medicine and share his knowledge with others to improve their quality of life. And for those of us benefiting from the therapeutic effects of cannabis, we are in Raphael Mechoulam’s debt for his adventurous spirit and intellectual generosity.