Connect to share and comment

It's not just Colorado and Washington: The world is abandoning the US-backed drug war in favor of a more liberal approach to cannabis.

Israel weed 109913271
A worker carries medical marijuana at the growing facility of the Tikun Olam company on March 9, 2011 near Safed, Israel. The country has long been a pioneer of cannabis research. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Israel and Palestine

PhD in Weed: Meet Israel’s cannabis scientist

Much of what we know about cannabinoids and medical marijuana stems from the groundbreaking work of this courtly Israeli.

JERUSALEM — An award-winning professor of medicinal chemistry and natural products at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Raphael Mechoulam is a trim gentleman who wears tweed jackets and silk scarves.

He is no slacker. At 82, he still works full-time. 

Despite Mechoulam's respectability, his greatest fame stems from two scientific breakthroughs that may earn him a warm welcome among denizens of /r/trees.

In 1964, he was the first person to synthesize THC, tetrahydrocannabinol, the principal active ingredient in weed. That leap is what has enabled the scientific study of cannabis.

Before him it was all myths and smoke.

Mechoulam is almost universally referred to as the father of research on cannabinoids. (But no, he has never partaken in the stuff, he says.)

In fact, CNN's Sanjay Gupta spent a few days in Mechoulam's lab while researching what became his very public about-face this month on the usefulness of medical marijuana.

In 1992, almost three decades after synthesizing THC, Mechoulam identified anandamide, a naturally occurring human cannabinoid neurotransmitter, (translation: the stuff that makes you feel high when you haven't ingested anything.)

Given the opportunity to name it, Mechoulam turned to the Sanskrit word ananda, meaning supreme bliss.

Parallel to these achievements, Mechoulam has spent the better part of a lifetime trying to secure approval for scientific experiments — only to crash into the disapproval of officialdom. "An academic lab is an open place," he says, "and to have young people in the lab working with illegal stuff… How can the head of a lab determine whether the kid who is working on it isn't taking a bit under the table?"

When just starting his research, in the early 1960s, Mechoulam found some unlikely allies: the narcs. He had a few friends who were cops: "Someone would say 'hey, could you give him 5 kilos of hash? I know the guy.'"

Et voila: his career was launched.

Mechoulam is still fighting. He recently helped save Israel's groundbreaking medical cannabis program from yet another assault by Health Ministry bureaucrats, who tried in late June to limit the forms and varieties of medical cannabis available at legal clinics.

Among other things, the ministry threatened (but failed) to ban Avidekel, a locally developed strain of cannabis containing less than 1 percent THC, the element that gets you high, and 16 percent CBD, a palliative cannabinoid that has no side effects. In other words, it doesn’t get you high.

The ministry's principal concern was that CBD has yet to be isolated and tested in laboratory conditions, in the way that paracetamol, for example, was tested. "Scientists do not like to work with an unidentified mélange when evaluating a compound," Mechoulam explains.

Dr. Boaz Lev, the ministry's Associate Director General, says "remember that what we all want is the best for these patients, a medication that we know and understand and can responsibly prescribe them."

It is easy to giggle about a bum subspecies of weed like the Israeli-developed Avidekel, but for a child undergoing chemotherapy who hopes to keep going to school, non-narcotic cannabis is no laughing matter.

One medical professional said the ministry was thwarted "because Mechoulam stood beside us and never budged, and in the end they couldn't say no to him."

By any measure, he is one of Israel's most renowned scientists.

His groundbreaking article on the synthesis of THC was published almost 50 years ago, in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Since then, he has been a recipient of numerous research grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health, in Washington, DC.

An experiment he supervised 15 years ago at Jerusalem's Sha'arey Tzedek Hospital had the remarkable result of diminishing the side effects of chemotherapy on "every single child" who was given TCH in drops, under the tongue. "The nausea and vomiting simply stopped. And when the chemo ended, we stopped the treatment," he recalls.

Despite this, legal complications stemming from illicit nature of marijuana have almost completely prevented ongoing research on the effects of THC on cancer patients.

Mechoulam says this is "tragic." Others in Israel are calling it criminal.

The beneficial effects of cannabis for pain relief and in combating chemotherapy's side effects have long been documented. But now, experiments on cancerous growths themselves, conducted by the Spanish researcher Manuel Guzmán, show outstanding results in reducing the size of tumors in human beings.

More from GlobalPost: Europe’s marijuana capital isn’t Amsterdam

Professor Avinoam Reches, a Hadassah Hospital professor of neurology, who as chairperson of the ethics committee of the Israel Medical Association has presided over numerous discussions on the use of medical cannabis, prescribes cannabis to patients with diagnoses known to benefit from its palliative treatments such as Parkinson's Disease and Tourette's Syndrome.

Asked to name any colleagues in the world of Israeli medicine who oppose this use of cannabis, Reches replied "no one comes to mind. I can't think of anyone."

"I use cannabis in routine ways in my patients, according to the directives that are part of the medical consensus," he said, underscoring his practice of prescribing cannabis to long-term patients whose case histories he knows well, and mentioning the wariness he feels towards "people who I have never before met, who come in with specific complaints, asking for cannabis. These people do not always tell the truth," he says, "and have a tendency towards over-use or abuse of the drug."

Reches said he found it "astonishing" that questions presented to the NIH regarding scientific research on medical marijuana are directed to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Mechoulam is looking ahead. "Governments," he says, "should set aside the recreational aspects and find a way to allow scientific research to advance."

Norman Gooding More than 1 year ago
I want to thank the doctor for all his efforts to reach past the corporate protection scam the US government has forced upon the world through the UN and the Single Treaty Convention. We will free the hemp plant for all of mankind.
Yasapala Nanayakkara More than 1 year ago
Cannabis known in Sri Lanka as ganja, Kansa had been in use as a medicinal herb for ages up until end of 19 century when British colonial government banned it. It was grown in homes stead gardens and was in wide use for culinary, Ayurveda and as a drug as well. Ancient literature refers to all these uses.Still it is used for making medicine and quite interestingly the supply comes from illicit growers. When they are caught the crop is either destroyed or sent to government Ayurvedic Drugs Corporation for restricted use. Good to here great scientific work is being done in this marvelous herb to be used as and ingredient in drug production.
Vera Narishkin More than 1 year ago
It is Cannabis oil rich in THC that cures cancer. If it gets the cancer patient high too, that is not a bad thing as it makes the patient relaxed and in a good mood, both things that help and hasten the cure.
Alan Bernstein More than 1 year ago
The world is grateful for the remarkable contributions of Raphael Mechoulam and Israeli groundbreaking scientists. The prohibition experiment has failed. Time to end it!
Zuli Visanji 11 months ago
Looking for exporters to Canada will appreciate links.
Realty Safety First Associates More than 1 year ago
Glad to see beloved Israel focusing on "...leaves are for the HEALING of the Nations..." rather than producing synthetics like Exstasy!
Guido Sarduci More than 1 year ago
It does not cure cancer. Don't make it into snake oil.
Richard Carew More than 1 year ago
And the science behind your claim?
Ken More than 1 year ago
Is there a way to make co2 oil less thick other than heat or dilution.
Etheridge James More than 1 year ago
While we, in America, spend research dollars on getting rid of wrinkles, putting hair back on our heads, taking it off our bodies,getting rid of grey, injecting botox to stop sweating, instant 'natural?' weight loss chemicals that you only need to sprinkle on your carcinogenic meals, and ageless male testosterone replacement, Israeli researchers were finding out that marijuana IS medicine. I think it is absolutely amazing what happens in medicine when it is not FOR PROFIT, PAY FOR SERVICE, and the pharmaceutical industry and the FDA are run by the same people.
LaughinPaulRyan More than 1 year ago
... Buy It Now, It's Legal in all 50 states and produced by a licensed gov't patent #6,630,057 public company - ...
Ryan Frantz More than 1 year ago
Thank u for finally giving it a good name everyone things its bad for you and kills ur brain when really its a useful resouce that was naturally on our planet. No more chemcials and pills that kill and cause harm to our bodies
Matt Basil More than 1 year ago
This guy can't be a scientist and claim to be an expert on marijuana if he has never experienced first hand the effects Marijuana. He's Irrelevent, basedgod #2014
Markus Jenkins More than 1 year ago
@Matt You don't need to ingest a medicine to study it. Do scientists need to take birth control medications or anti-seizure medications in order to be experts in those fields?