Raphael Mechoulam -The Scientist Who Pioneered Research Into THC

How A Controversial Bus Ride In Lebanon Led To The Discovery of THC


It was a fateful day in 1964. Tel Aviv born Professor Raphael Mechoulam had in his possession a staggering 5 kilos of Lebanese Hash but he wasn’t carrying it for personal use. The Professor procured the hash for research purposes, he was taking it to his laboratory in Rehovot, The Weitzmann Institute. What began as a controversial bus ride, the stuff of legends that might bring to mind the shenanigans of the late Howard Marks in fact led to the discovery of medicinal properties in marijuana or to be precise a component of marijuana known as ‘Tetrahydrocannabinol’ or ‘THC’ for short.  


It would be another 20 years before Professor Mechoulam made his next break through.  Mechoulam’s research led him to the discovery of the ‘endocannabinoid system’, and what is that exactly? The Huffington Post sheds some light on this in an article titled ‘If You Do One Thing In 2017 For Your Health, Look After Your Endocannabinoid System’...

...to reference the Huffington Post article; 

“Back in the day when scientists were studying THC, the psychoactive compound in cannabis, they realised that most mammals have a vast network receptors throughout the brain, central nervous and immune system. These act like locks on the surface of cells, waiting to be opened by cannabis-like chemicals called 'endocannabinoids' - endo meaning 'within' the body.”


The Professor became aware of a receptor chemical in the brain named ‘anandamide’. According to the science peer review journal site ScienceDirect, ‘anandamide’ is:


“...is a brain lipid that binds to cannabinoid receptors with high affinity and mimics the psychoactive effects of plant-derived cannabiniod drugs..” (https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/anandamide)


Some research suggests that the ‘endocannabinoid system’ holds the key to connecting brain activity and disease. Bradley E. Alger, Ph.D. writes in their PubMed publication ‘Getting High on the Endocannabinoid System’:


“The endogenous cannabinoid system—named for the plant that led to its discovery—is one of the most important physiologic systems involved in establishing and maintaining human health. Endocannabinoids and their receptors are found throughout the body: in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells. With its complex actions in our immune system, nervous system, and virtually all of the body’s organs, the endocannabinoids are literally a bridge between body and mind. By understanding this system, we begin to see a mechanism that could connect brain activity and states of physical health and disease”


Further research in recent times implicates the possibility of THC, the ‘endocannabinoid’ discovered by Raphael Mechoulam may improve the immune system. Pandey R1, Mousawy K, Nagarkatti M & Nagarkatti P (Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, University of South Carolina School of Medicine, Columbia) have this to say about ‘endocannabinoids’ in a 2009 piece called ‘Endocannabinoids and immune regulation’.


“Studies from our laboratory have suggested that administration of endocannabinoids or use of inhibitors of enzymes that breakdown the endocannabinoids, leads to immunosuppression and recovery from immune-mediated injury to organs such as the liver. Thus, manipulation of endocannabinoids in vivo (within the living) may constitute a novel treatment modality against inflammatory disorders.”


In the Huffington Post article cited earlier on here, Ethan Russo, American Neurologist is quoted, speaking of what he terms 'Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency'. Dr Russo believes this  deficiency lies at the roots of ‘fibromyalgia, muscular sclerosis, IBS and migraines’. Dr Russo opines:


"If you don't have enough endocannabinoids you have pain where there shouldn't be pain. You would be sick, meaning nauseated. You would have a lowered seizure threshold. And just a whole litany of other problems."


The HuffPost article goes on further to mention the young Irish girl, Ava Twomey who suffers a rare form of epilepsy known as ‘Dravet Syndrome’. According to the article, Ava suffered up to ‘20 seizures per day’ and that conventional treatment in Ava’s home country was having impact on improving the condition. Ava is said to be currently residing in the Netherlands with her mother where she receives medicinal treatment which has improved Ava’s condition vastly (http://www.thejournal.ie/ava-twomey-seizures-3582727-Sep2017/)



Mechoulam’s THC findings are said to have made in roads into treating other mental health conditions like PTSD and schizophrenia. It may be argued that THC has psychoactive qualities and this is true but CBD does not have such qualities. CBD, which is found in cannabis along with THC is said to dampen the effects of psychosis..




Professor Mechoulam - A Man Of Research, Not A ‘Stoner’


Professor Mechoulam carried out ground breaking research into THC and CBD-he didn’t smoke  marijuana. The Professor is quoted in The Independent, explaining how he had no knowledge he was breaking the law when he took the hash to his lab.


““I have never used it….As I did research and we had an official supply of cannabis, obviously if we had used it for non-scientific reasons if people had come to know about it that would have stopped our work. Basically, neither I nor my students were interested.”


The now retired Professor Mechoulam is now a consultant to the Israeli Ministry of Health where he continues to serve at the grand age of 87 years old. From his humble beginnings, born into a  Sephardic Jewish family in Sofia, Bulgaria, the Professor dedicated his life to finding ways to improve people’s lives, especially those in chronic pain and who suffer from debilitating mental health illnesses. Mechoulam himself underwent many hardships in his formative years such as being forced to leave his home due to Anti Semitism, being imprisoned in a concentration camp and communist sponsored chemical engineering.

Today, we pay tribute to the Professor, his services to humanity and the advances in medical science he helped to bring about.