It’s not every day that you can waltz down to police headquarters and pick up a few kilos of weed—unless, that is, you’re Raphael Mechoulam, the man who discovered THC, the chemical that gets you high (and provides medicinal relief to people with serious ailments).
Mechoulam, 85, recalls one day in the early ’60s in Israel, as he rode a bus from Tel Aviv to Rehovot, where he worked at the Weizmann Institute of Science. He remembers thinking to himself: Nobody on the bus realizes the smell emanating from this bag is from five kilograms of “superb, smuggled Lebanese hashish,” he said in a 2007 interview in the journal for the Society for the Study of Addiction. It was, in fact, a gift he had received from the police.
As a young researcher fascinated with biology and chemistry, Mechoulam had requested to study cannabis, a prevalent yet poorly understood plant used for hundreds of years for medicine and recreation. Knowing that the police usually burned smuggled hashish, he asked the director of the Weizmann Institute if he knew of any police who could supply hashish for the sake research. The director, who barely knew Mechoulam, made a phone call to the police and convinced them to let the “reliable” young scientist pick up some weed.
After that first excursion from Tel Aviv, Mechoulam learned he and the investigative branch police head had unwittingly broken various laws. One couldn’t, as it turns out, just walk off with five kilos of weed. But given that he was an fledgling researcher, he got off with a simple apology. “Since then, I have been obtaining hashish from the police over 40 years,” Mechoulam said.
This month, the Israeli scientist was given a lifetime achievement award at CannMed 2016, a cannabinoid medicine conference at the Harvard School of Medicine. Indeed, the soft-spoken, bookish chemist, dubbed “The Man,” by High Times magazine, is an obvious recipient for such an award. In 1964, he discovered THC along with two colleagues, Yehiel Gaoni and Haviv Edery, and he has elucidated various other chemical compounds, or “cannabinoids” (Mechoulam coined the term), occurring in both the cannabis plant and the human body.
Mechoulam was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1930, into a well-to-do Sephardic Jewish family. His father, a physician who was the head of Sofia’s Jewish Hospital, and later survived the Holocaust, and his German-educated mother, made “books, theater, concerts, and medicine” integral to Mechoulam’s upbringing. Eastern Europe was pleasant while Hitler was still only a “demented curiosity,” but by the time World War II had broken out, Mechoulam’s family moved from village to village, as “anti-Semitic laws made our life almost unbearable.” They moved to Israel in 1949. “I first tasted the sweet taste of research in the Army,” says Mechoulam, of his role in the IDF doing research on insecticides. “I found the independence of research to be an addiction from which I do not want to be cured.”
The active constituents of cannabis were unknown when he began researching it. With petroleum ether to extract a “pure, although oily compound,” Mechoulam’s group named it tetrahydrocannabinol, to parallel the already-discovered, non-psychotropic compound cannabidiol (CBD). THC and CBD have proven to be useful in treating cancer, epilepsy, chronic pain, anxiety, HIV/AIDS, and endless other ailments.
Three decades later, in the ’90s, Mechoulam identified endogenous cannabinoids that work with the body’s endocannabinoid system to regulate a wide range of physiological functions. One such endocannabinoid is called “anandamide,” named for the Sanskrit word describing “supreme joy.” “We believed then—and still do—that the endocannabinoid system plays a role in the formation of emotions,” said Mechoulam.
He’s since taught graduate courses at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His global batch of students include observant and secular Jews, Muslim and Christian Arabs. “They work well together indeed. It is a tragedy that Israelis and Palestinians cannot get along as well as my students do. My teaching does not have defined borders,” said Mechoulam, who teaches both chemistry and biology.
In 1982, Mechoulam said that if cannabis were legal, it would replace ten to twenty percent of all pharmaceuticals. Now with medical cannabis in 24 states, and elsewhere around the world, he says he looks forward to integrating it into traditional medicine. “I have spent the better part of my life decoding the mysteries that lie within this incredible plant,” Mechoulam said at CannMed. “The collective work on the plant has now led to the identification of a major physiological system, the endocannabinoid system, which seems to be involved in many human diseases.”
Says Mechoulam in The Scientist, a film about his life: “Here we have a group of compounds, an endogenous system of major importance [but] it is not being used as much as it should in the clinic. It is of great promise…let’s try to push it forward.”
Madison Margolin is a journalist living in New York. She specializes in writing about Jewish culture and drug policy.