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Who is Raphael Mechoulam?
More than a half-century ago, the “grandfather of marijuana research,” Israeli chemist and former Hebrew University professor Raphael Mechoulam, isolated and identified the cannabis compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a psychotropic cannabinoid best known for its mind-altering effects.
The groundbreaking discovery has remained a topic of discussion in an industry that’s grown considerably over the past 50 years with expanded legalization and decriminalization in the United States and globally. Regulators, growers and consumers alike pay particularly close attention to THC levels in commercial and medical cannabis.
But Mechoulam, now retired, remains more dedicated to healing than getting high. The esteemed researcher—who this year told Culture Magazine he’s never so much as smoked a joint—has promoted the therapeutic benefits of non-psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) for years. CBD is the primary non-psychoactive compound found in marijuana and demonstrates a broad range of potential medical applications. It was discovered in 1940 and re-isolated by Mechoulam in 1963, a year before THC’s discovery.
“The publication on CBD (in 1963) caused no scientific ripples,” Mechoulam said in a 2007 interview with the Society for the Study of Addiction. “Over the years, however, interest in CBD has gradually increased.”
What is Mechoulam’s significance to the CBD community?
Mechoulam got the ball rolling on CBD research by performing a small clinical study in 1980 on the compound’s effects in eight epileptic patients. Half of participants remained nearly seizure-free throughout the CBD trial period, and three patients demonstrated notable improvement.
“All patients and volunteers tolerated CBD very well and no signs of toxicity or serious side effects were detected on examination,” Mechoulam wrote.
Despite early evidence and a renewed interest in research born of expanded marijuana legalization, scientists are still trying to catch up to the anecdotal evidence. The continued federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug remains a major hurdle to advancing CBD research in the U.S.
Major Discoveries: Endocannabinoid System, Anandamide, and CBD
Among Mechoulam’s major advances was the identification of the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is a classification of chemical molecules, neural receptors, and enzymes in the human body that help us maintain homeostasis and balance. The ECS naturally produces cannabinoids in our body to help regulate physical and psychological processes and is crucial in transmitting those chemicals throughout the nervous system. In reference to plant-based cannabinoids, like THC and CBD, the ECS is the mechanism by which those chemicals are introduced and moved throughout the body.
Additionally, Mechoulam helped identify anadamide, an endocannabinoid that acts as a neurobiding agent during the transmission and reception of human and plant-produced cannabinoids in the human body. It’s often referred to as the “bliss molecule” because of its impact on appetite stimulation, mood, pain management and several other psychological processes.
CBD, which is a plant-based cannabinoid, had been around for over a century by the time Raphael Mechoulam began doing research to fully understand it’s chemistry. His major contribution to CBD research was identifying its potential medical properties and its impacts on individuals suffering from neurological conditions such as epilepsy.
How did his research lead CBD where it is today?
Somewhat counterintuitively, it’s actually the federal government who’s leading the most CBD research in this country, as HuffPost contributor Dr. David Bearman reports.
Bearman explains the federal government has a patent on CBD that claims cannabinoids have demonstrated properties useful for treating a wide variety of diseases.
“Non-psychoactive cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol, are particularly advantageous to use because they avoid toxicity that is encountered with psychoactive cannabinoids at high doses useful in the method of the present invention,” the patent abstract says.
Preliminary research shows CBD may be a useful treatment for a broad list of indications, including smoking cessation, drug withdrawal, epilepsy, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, acne and even some mental health disorders, according to Medical News Today.
Still, Mechoulam points out that these discoveries remain somewhat meaningless if cannabis stigma and prohibition persist and the science of cannabis medicine can’t advance.
“I believe that CBD has to be moved from the highest illegal situation,” Mechoulam told The Denver Post following a keynote speech in April 2017 at Colorado State University-Pueblo. “And once it’s moved, more people will be using it. And I hope it will become a major (medicinal) drug.”
Stay Up to Date with Mechoulam’s Research
Raphael Mechoulam is currently head of the Medicinal Chemistry Lab at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and President of the Multidisciplinary Center for Cannabinoid Research. If you would like to stay up to date on advances in cannabinoid and what Mechoulam’s team is doing, you can visit the Multidisciplinary Center’s website. They regularly post news updates, scientific publications, and more.