Tribute to the "Father of Cannabis"

Liz Filmer
06 Nov 2023

Professor Raphael Mechoulam was widely recognized as one of the most outstanding scientists in cannabinoid research; he remained an active researcher until his death earlier this year. November 5th would have been his 93rd birthday. Born in Bulgaria to Jewish parents, the family emigrated to Israel in 1949. Mechoulam obtained an MSc in biochemistry in 1952 and, subsequently, a PhD in chemistry. 

He was appointed Associate Professor in 1972 at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and then Professor of Medicinal Chemistry in 1975. It is here where he began his prestigious cannabinoid research career.

It was Mechoulam who, in a series of papers starting in 1963, first reported the isolation, structure elucidation, stereochemistry and activity of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis, that we know now as Delta 9 THC. They also made similar huge breakthroughs with other cannabinoids, including CBD, cannabigerol and cannabichromene.

For nearly twenty years after the identification of THC, its tools of action were considered to be entirely "non-specific". However, in the 1980s, conclusions reached by several research groups suggested something else. Results obtained by Mechoulam encouraged a search for a cannabinoid receptor in the tissue of mammals, leading to the discovery of two cannabinoid receptors. The CB1 receptor was discovered between 1988 and 1990, and the CB2 receptor was discovered in 1993. 

The proof acquired in the late 1980s that mammalian tissues represent the CB1 receptor immediately initiated searches for a naturally produced chemical to activate this receptor. The race to uncover such an "endocannabinoid" was triumphed by Mechoulam. He led research that provided compelling evidence that anandamide is an endogenously created compound that could activate the CB1 receptor. Following Mechoulam's work, other endocannabinoids were also subsequently discovered.

The discovery of the endocannabinoid system significantly boosted cannabinoid research, mainly when evidence subsequently emerged that this system plays critical protective roles in several severe disorders both within and outside the central nervous system, raising the possibility that some diseases could be fought with drugs that improve the levels of endocannabinoids in the body.

Among Raphael Mechoulam's many other accomplishments are the creation and synthesis of multiple necessary novel cannabinoids that function as useful experimental tools and have critical therapeutic potential.

In conclusion, throughout his career in the cannabinoid field, Raphael Mechoulam proved time and again a remarkable ability to chase exciting, authentic and crucial ideas that have significantly helped to increase understanding of cannabinoids and to pursue these ideas to notable effect. 

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Liz Filmer