Cannabis has a long and fascinating history in relation to humans: there’s compelling evidence that is was, in fact, the first plant cultivated by humans, coming in ahead of grains, legumes, and other staple crops.
But if our appreciation of this powerful plant has deep roots—no pun intended—our understanding of it on a scientific level is only now beginning to emerge. Unfortunately, due to legal prohibition and cultural biases, this research—at least in the United States—lags far behind that done on other plant medicines. As a result, one scientist in Israel—a country most people don’t associate with cannabis production—may have accomplished more than any other single person in unlocking the secrets and the potential of this ancient medicine.
Dr. Raphael Mechoulam: A Researcher on an (Accidental) Mission
Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, a Bulgarian-born Israeli chemist, began studying cannabis in the early 1960s, but his approach had nothing to do with the countercultural movements then reaching full flower. Searching for a field in which little to no research had been done—in short, one with few competitors—he was surprised that, unlike other plant-based drugs, such as morphine, no one had studied the chemical nature of cannabis.
His research commenced with a matter-of-fact call to Israeli police, who were happy to donate five kilos of Moroccan hash seized at the border. Applying careful, methodical analysis, Dr. Mechoulam and his team proceeded to isolate the chemical compounds—or cannabinoids—responsible for cannabis’ psychoactive effects.
Unlocking the Chemistry of Cannabis
Once that analysis was complete, research on primates quickly established a startling fact: Of the more than 100 cannabinoids discovered, only one—THC—is psychoactive, attaching to specific receptors in the body. This isn’t to say the other cannabinoids aren’t significant; they have everything to do with a specific plant’s characteristics, medical and therapeutic efficacy. You’ve likely heard, for instance, the “buzz” around high-CBD strains and their usefulness in treating everything from chronic pain to multiple sclerosis to epilepsy.
An informal test revealed a crucial facet of cannabis. After having his wife bake a large dose of THC into a cake, he observed its effects on himself and some friends. Their responses—ranging from euphoria to paranoia to hyperactivity—confirmed that different people exhibit markedly different responses to it. (A side note: This was the only time Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, the discoverer of THC, ever got high.)
The recognition of THC’s psychoactivity and its interaction with the body’s receptors would have been enough to secure Dr. Mechoulam’s place in medical history, but another discovery remained. It would both establish cannabis’ elemental role in human biology once and for all, and—leaving the scientific plane for the spiritual one—provide a crucial insight into why so many people find cannabis to be such powerful medicine.
The Missing Link: Why Cannabis Works So Well
Continuing his research into the chemical structure of cannabis and the human body’s response to it, in 1992 Dr. Raphael Mechoulam announced the discovery of another cannabinoid, but this one is produced inside the body. This distinction is critical; it establishes that, in a sense, our bodies and the cannabis plant speak the “same language.” In other words, there’s firm scientific grounding that our body’s natural cannabinoid system — the endocannabinoid system — plays an important role to play in regulating health, mood, and much more.
Since the initial recognition of the endocannabinoid system much more has been done to chart this crucial internal regulatory system, and much more remains. Next time we contemplate the seeming magic of cannabis’ powerful therapeutic and recreational effects, we can all thank a quiet, industrious researcher and his patient quest for a deeper understanding of this fascinating plant.