Raphael Mechoulam

The Most Famous Cannabis Scientist That You've Probably Never Heard Of

Giving credit to one person for discovering medical uses of cannabis is like looking for a single person who “invented” the Internet.  After all, the origin of cannabis dates back thousands of years and the plant’s properties became known gradually – perhaps by accident or experimentation by some curious Neolithic farmers.  Similarly, the Internet as we know it today, evolved from a combination of a number of concepts from different people ultimately merging to create the service as we know it today.

But in the realm of cannabis medical research, a single person is indisputably positioned at the helm.  Often called the father or the grandfather and sometimes the godfather (ok, we get it!)  of Marijuana, Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam broke new ground for unbiased research leading to the isolation of cannabinoids and their interactions with human physiology.

Since beginning his research in the 1960s, Professor Mechoulam has been nominated for over 25 academic awards including the Nobel Prize.  Heck, the guy is even the subject of a 2015 movie documentary called The Scientist.  But, like me, you’ve probably never heard of him.

Let’s roll with a checklist of a few impressive research milestones attached to Mechoulam’s name:

  • Isolated Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC, the most abundant cannabinoid and the one with the most psychoactive effects.
  • Established the structure of Cannabidiol (CBD), the second most abundant compound, which had been previously isolated, yet unknown structurally. Check.
  • Identified the brain’s first endogenous cannabinoid, one of the compounds that activate the plants receptors. (Mechoulam and his research partner subsequently named the endocannabinoid Anandamide, which means “supreme joy” in Sanskrit.)Check.
  • Discovered a second endogenous compound, named 2-AG, opening another door in endocannabinoid research.


In a nutshell, Mechoulam not only identified the chemical compound isolates and their structures, but he linked the brain’s own compounds, the wonderful endocannabinoids which exist in all of us, to cannabis plant receptors.    I would venture to say that we wouldn’t be talking about all of the potential medical uses that we are exploring today without his dogged determination in the laboratory.

Mechoulam has a compelling personal history.  Born in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1930, his Jewish family was forced out of their hometown due to the raging anti-Semitism of the day.  In fact, Mechoulam’s father spent time in a Nazi concentration camp after which the family relocated to Israel in 1949.

As a young post-doctoral student at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel, Mechoulam was casting about for important topics to research. After reading the literature on cannabis he “was surprised to a large extent that while 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, the active component of marijuana was unknown.”  To that end he proposed a thorough study of cannabis.

For lab samples, he used hashish seized by local police, a tactic I find both amusing and remarkably resourceful.   In the documentary there’s a snippet of Mechoulam reminiscing about how he nonchalantly carried a 5kg bag of Lebanese hashish concealed in a satchel on the bus ride back to his laboratory at the Weizmann Institute.  (He was without a car for transportation.) As the bus trip progressed, other passengers gave him some curious looks as the scent from his satchel perched atop his lap became obvious.

Interestingly, Mechoulam is also credited with being among the first to describe the now-controversial “entourage effect”, a term that refers to the combined effect of the various cannabinoids and other chemical compounds that exist in the cannabis plant.  In theory, these compounds work together to product an effect that is greater than the sum of its parts.

But there’s no proof without the pudding – or in this case double blind, placebo-controlled studies.  Although the cannabis industry is rife with anecdotal evidence of the many plant compounds working in synergistic fashion to create exponential results, the real data to support the efficacy of the entourage effect is sparse.

I watched The Scientist a second time recently, readily available on You Tube if you’re curious, and was struck by Mechoulam’s humble but elegant words at the beginning of the movie when asked why he consented to be filmed.  Here was his answer.

“I would like to push ahead and tell people: here we have a group of compounds, an endogenous system of major importance.  It is not being used as much as it should be in the clinic.  It is of great promise in the clinic.  Let’s try to push it forward.”

Amen to that.

P.S., the beginnings of the internet  – at least according to Wikipedia – seems to be attributed to Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf who developed the “internet protocol suite” and later to a fellow named Tim Berners-Lee  who came up with the worldwide web.   There’s not a peep about Al Gore.

The rest is history.

Meredith Patterson, RN, BSN, CRRN

Meredith Patterson is a nurse specializing in neurology. She writes about the brain and brain health at her blog – www.BrainStormmindfitness.com.



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