To most who believe in the medicinal value of cannabis, Raphael Mechoulam, who discovered THC and CBD in the 60’s, is a hero. He was the scientist who discovered a complex system in the brain and immune system. Today, we know it as the endocannabinoid system.
Grandfather of medical cannabis
Mechoulam is considered the grandfather of medicinal cannabis. But our hero told The Independent that he has never used cannabis. He says that the material he used for his research was an official supply. The risk if he, or his students, were caught using it for any reason other than scientific research would have jeopardized his work. He would therefore never have considered it.
In the early 60’s, smoking cannabis was not yet all that popular, and the National Institute of Health (NIH) denied Professor Mechoulam a grant for research on the herb. In the 70’s though, when smoking became very popular, a NIH representative flew to Israel to investigate his work.
A pharmacologist took some THC back to the US and quite a bit of the early work done by the NIH on cannabis was done on the THC Mechoulam and his team gave them. Mechoulam is not sure whether the NIH representative smuggled it into the country.
Initially, Mechoulam unknowingly broke the law when he used hashish the police gave him to do experiments with. He later received his samples from the Ministry of Health in Israel.
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Mechoulam: inspiring today’s research
Today, research efforts around the world are based on Professor Mechoulam’s work. Researchers are investigating the way the endocannabinoid system works. At the same time, they are studying the effects of cannabinoids as a treatment for a wide range of illnesses.
A recent announcement by Oxford University revealed that it was about to undertake a £10m research program into the medicinal uses of cannabis. Currently, there is only one licensed cannabis-based medication in Britain, Sativex. It is a spray that doctors can prescribe for multiple sclerosis patients. With so much research underway, it will only be a matter of time before other cannabinoid drugs are introduced. Soon, doctors will treat illnesses in new ways as their understanding of the endocannabinoid system grows.
Professor Mechoulam, now 86, is supposed to be officially retired. However, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem has provided him with the facilities to keep working should he wish to continue his lifelong fascination with the cannabis plant and its chemistry. The Ministry of Health in Israel also consults with him and has approved medical marijuana for more than 27,000 patients.
The entourage effect
Another of Professor Mechoulam’s discoveries is the “entourage effect” of the cannabinoids and other molecules found in cannabis. Mechoulam believes that the total effect of all the compounds together produces better results than isolating one or two or synthesizing a compound to use as an ingredient in medication.
Although current research focuses on THC, CBD or combinations of the two, Mechoulam is satisfied that progress is finally being made. He still believes that the whole plant is best. But at least people are finally taking his work and building on it. There is much to be done. After all, the good Professor discovered an entire system of the body that nobody had known existed.