When Raphael Mechoulam first asked the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for a grant to research cannabis back in 1963, the top U.S. public health agency was quick to show him the door. “They told me, ‘Come back to us when you choose another subject—marijuana is not an American problem,'” the 84-year-old Israeli professor recalls.
More than half a century later—after becoming the first scientist to isolate THC, having a long, successful career dedicated to discovering cannabis and its effects on the body, and now being referred to in Israel as the “Grandfather of Marijuana”—professor Mechoulam still sounds a little proud when he mentions how fast the NIH changed its mind.
“One year after that initial rejection,” he says in an interview this week in his small office in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, surrounded by framed awards, “I got a call from the same official. Turns out, a U.S. senator’s son was caught smoking marijuana. The senator asked the NIH what effect it would have on his brain, and they were embarrassed to have done no research on the matter. He called to see what our group has done so far.”
“By that time,” Mechoulam continues, “we were lucky enough to isolate THC [the psycho-active ingredient in cannabis], so I invited him over.”
The discovery itself, he says, owes a great deal to Israel being a small country where everyone knows one another and where the rules are somewhat flexible. “Our administrative manager knew a guy from his army time who became a senior police officer. He called him and asked if we could get some Lebanese hashish from the storage rooms. Long story short, I went to Tel Aviv, had coffee with the guy and drove back on the bus with 5 kilos of hashish.”
The American health official left Israel with all the pure THC from that batch, “and most of the THC research which was done in the U.S. during the following years was from those 5 kilos,” Mechoulam says, smiling. “In the U.S., I would have gone straight to prison.” Perhaps not anymore. As attitudes toward using cannabis change in the U.S. and around the world, there is renewed interest—and a new legitimacy—in developing drugs based on cannabis, and on the disease-fighting natural mechanism that the plant helped to uncover: the endocannabinoid system.
Mechoulam and his team have been there all along. After isolating THC and other cannabinoids in the plant (among them the non-psychoactive cannabidiol, which is the main hope in developing new drugs), fellow researchers discovered the brain receptors they activate. Then a team in Mechoulam’s lab began looking for the reason those receptors were even there. (“It’s not because the plant exists,” he says.) They found that the human body naturally synthesizes endocannabinoids, which affect appetite, mood, memory and more. But that’s where things got stuck.
Mechoulam explains it was due to various reasons. THC and cannabidiol are not patentable, meaning drug companies can’t make enough money from them to justify the investment it would take to turn them into approved drugs. Secondly, the fact that cannabis is still considered an illegal drug in many places deters companies from dealing with it. In addition, he says, government regulators did not push hard enough for clinical trials of cannabinoid-based medicine, also because of its illegality.