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By Leo Bear-McGuinness
The renowned cannabis scientist Raphael Mechoulam has died at the age of 92.
The news comes from friends and colleagues who have shared their condolences and tributes.
David (Dedi) Meiri, an associate professor at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and a colleague of Mechoulam’s said the following in an online statement on March 10:
“This is a very sad day for me, for the science community and for the cannabis community. Professor Raphael Mechoulam or as we called him Raphi, was one of the greatest scientist I ever met and was my teacher and mentor in many aspects. I truly believe he was deserve a Nobel prize!”
“Thank you Raphi for all the great things you did and discover in your life and thanks for all the help and support you gave me. Rest in peace my dear friend.”
The father of cannabis research
Among his many achievements, Dr. Mechoulam is credited as the first person to synthesize THC.
Mechoulam was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1930 to a Sephardic Jewish family. His family later relocated to Israel, where Mechoulam studied chemistry.
In the early 1960s, while working as a chemist at the Weizmann Institute, Mechoulam acquired some cannabis material from the Israeli police with the intention of isolating and identifying the psychoactive component of the plant, which had never been done at the time.
“Morphine had been isolated from opium in the nineteenth century, early nineteenth century,” Mechoulam told CNN in an interview in 2014. “Cocaine had been isolated from coca leaves [in the] mid-nineteenth century. And here we were, mid-twentieth century, and yet the chemistry of cannabis was not known. So it looked like [an] interesting project.”
He succeeded and made the discovery of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). He and his colleagues then went on to isolate, elucidate, and synthesize several more cannabinoids (as the chemicals became known), including cannabidiol (CBD), cannabigerol (CBG), and cannabichromene (CBC).
These discoveries laid the foundation of cannabis chemical research and helped prompt future discoveries, such as the elucidation of the body’s own cannabinoid receptors in the 1980s and ‘90s.
With these endocannabinoid receptors identified, the race was on to find the chemicals that normally interacted with them, the human body’s own endogenous cannabinoids. And once again Mechoulam proved to be the pioneer. In 1992, he led research that provided the evidence that a chemical called arachidonoyl ethanolamine, which he and his colleagues named anandamide, was produced by the body and could activate the CB1 receptor.
And Mechoulam kept researching and innovating into his later years.
At the cannabis conference CannMed in California in 2019, the then-88-year-old announced another cannabis creation: synthetically stable cannabidiolic acid (CBDA), fit for clinical use.
“We have taken the unstable acid molecules of the cannabis plant and synthesized them to provide a stable, consistent basis for researching new therapies across a wide range of medical needs,” Mechoulam explained during his conference presentation.
During his speech, he urged the scientific community to support more medical cannabis research and lamented the research time already lost and the patients that had missed out on cannabis-based treatments for conditions such as epilepsy.
“Did we have to wait 30 years? No,” he said in 2019. “We could have helped thousands of children, and we didn’t.”
Mechoulam was a professor of medicinal chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. He received the Israel Prize in Exact Sciences – Chemistry in 2000, a NIDA Discovery Award in 2011, and the Harvey Prize (an annual Israeli award for breakthroughs in science and technology) in 2019.