This month’s National Geographic magazine features an interview with Raphael Mechoulam, the Israeli chemist known worldwide as the founder of medical marijuana research, as part of a cover story entitled “Weed: The New Science of Marijuana.”
Mechoulam’s early discoveries include tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in cannabis plants, and cannabidiol (CBD), another key ingredient with potential medical benefits but none of the mind-altering effects. He conducted this groundbreaking research in the sixties with Lebanese hashish confiscated by the Israeli national police.
Because of his foundational contributions to cannabis science and medical marijuana research, pot enthusiasts regard him as a celebrity. But the dapper 84-year-old sabba (grandpa) of 7 cautions against marijuana’s recreational use and says that he’s never smoked it himself.
The wacky weed is “not an innocuous substance,” especially for young people, he told NatGeo. Studies show that prolonged use can alter the growth of a developing brain; cannabis can also cause anxiety attacks or trigger schizophrenia, he said. Mechoulam doesn’t think anyone should go to jail for holding marijuana, but is not in favor of legalizing it for uses other than medical.
When in 1992 he discovered a chemical produced by the human body that binds to the same receptor as the high-inducing THC, he didn’t give it a Hebrew name “Because in Hebrew there are not so many words for happiness. Jews don’t like being happy,” he told National Geographic. Instead, he called it “anandamide,” Sanskrit for “supreme joy.”
Under Mechoulam’s tutelage, Israel boasts one of the most advanced medical marijuana programs in the world. More than 20,000 Israeli patients are licensed to alleviate various ailments, such as Crohn’s disease, Tourette’s syndrome, pediatric epilepsy, cancer side effects, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, with the drug.
With more than 400 scientific papers and 35 patents to his name, Mechoulam still runs a lab in Hebrew University’s Hadassah Medical School and lectures as a professor emeritus.