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Inside the mind of the father of medical cannabis research – Q&A with Dr. Raphael Mechoulam

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In 1965, cannabis researchers discovered the secret sauce that gets you high: THC. The psychoactive compound was isolated from the cannabis plant for the first time, making it was available to the scientific community for further research, and ushering cannabis into the world of modern medicine. Now, medical marijuana is used throughout the globe to assist with symptoms of epilepsy, chronic pain, cancer, and dozens of other illnesses.

One of those researchers was Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, a Bulgarian-born chemist who would go on to devote his career to the study of the chemistry of cannabinoids, write more than 400 scientific articles on medicinal cannabis, and reveal an entirely new biological system – the endocannabinoid system, which reacts with CBD and THC. His contributions to the advancement of medical marijuana around the globe have made him internationally recognized as “The Father of Medical Cannabis Research.”

After facing anti-Semitic persecution throughout the second world war, Mechoulam’s family immigrated to Israel, and he has stayed there ever since. Now 90-years-old, Mechoulam continues to teach Medicinal Chemistry at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His work has received numerous awards, including the highest cultural honor in that country known as the Israel Prize, and was the basis for the documentary “The Scientist.”

GreenState’s assistant editor spoke with Mechoulam on his career, his greatest achievements, and the future of medical marijuana.

How did you become interested in scientific research?

Since my high school days, I wanted to know how our body works. I was a high school student in Bulgaria, which was a Communist state at that time.  A few of my friends and I used to meet from time to time to discuss scientific problems. Possibly this was a reaction to the pressure by the Communist regime, which pressed us to discuss Leninism.

What made you focus your research on cannabis?

I am a chemist interested in natural products. I was surprised to find out that, while the structure and many biological effects of morphine and cocaine were well known, the active constituents of the cannabis plant were not. So, I went ahead. Dr. Gaoni and I isolated the active component (THC) in pure form, elucidated its structure, and later synthesized it.

That “total synthesis” of THC is what gave you the name, “The Father of Medical Cannabis Research.” Can you explain to the less-scientifically-minded of us what total synthesis means?

Total synthesis means the synthesis of a compound (usually a natural product) from readily available chemicals, not other natural products. Synthesizing THC made it available for research.

What do you see as the most exciting contribution you’ve made regarding cannabis?

In the 1990’s I realized that THC mimics the effects in the animal body of endogenous compounds, known now as endocannabinoids.  In 1992, we isolated the first one of these and named it anandamide. In 1992 we isolated a second major endocannabinoid, known as 2-AG. These are novel neurotransmitters which are involved in a huge number of body processes and disease states. Numerous researchers work on these compounds now. Over the 1990s and early 2000s, most of my work was on the activities of anandamide and 2-AG.

Finding this meant that the animal body has a major biochemical system, known today as the endocannabinoid system, which had not been discovered previously. Indeed, two senior investigators at NIH have stated that, to quote, “modulating ECS (endocannabinoid) activity may have therapeutic potential in almost all diseases affecting humans.”

Isn’t this exciting? The therapeutic potential is enormous. Many of our drugs today have to do with the biochemical systems discovered previously.

Imagine we’re 20 years in the future. What do you see the use of medical marijuana being?

Presumably, we shall see the use of additional pure cannabis constituents or their derivatives as well-established cannabinoid drugs. Today we have cannabidiol (CBD) for certain epilepsies. Presumably, we shall have cannabinoid drugs for pain, some gastrointestinal and neurological diseases. And people will continue to use medical marijuana for many problems, such as anxiety and depression.

Have you ever met someone whose life was impacted by your research?

Frequently people tell me that my work to help establish medical marijuana as a drug has helped them.

What’s something that surprises people about you?

Is there anything?

If you had to read three books for the rest of your life, what would they be?

“The World of Yesterday” by Stefan Zweig, translated from German, “A Tale of Love and Darkness” by Amos Oz, in Hebrew, and “The Story of the Jews” by Simon Schama, in English.

I am interested in the social aspects of history and these books give an excellent background of these aspects in Europe before Hitler, in Israel before the establishment of the state of Israel, and over 2000 years of Jewish history.

 

Elissa Esher is Assistant Editor at GreenState. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Guardian, Brooklyn Paper, Religion Unplugged, and Iridescent Women. Send inquiries and tips to elli.esher@hearst.com.