Meet the ‘Father of Marijuana Research’

Raphael Mechoulam started his first marijuana project by walking into a police station and asking for some confiscated weed—for research purposes. 

“I went there, drank coffee with the policemen and got 5 kilos of cannabis, hashish,” he said.

12_08_RaphaelMechoulam_Marijuana Raphael Mechoulam delivers a speech at the CannaTech conference, an international summit for accelerating cannabis innovation, in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv on March 7, 2016. Mechoulam is a leading figure in medical cannabis research and serves as the chairman of the CannaTech conference. AFP/GETTY/Jack Guez

Decades later, the 87-year-old Israeli chemist is known widely as the “father of marijuana research,” after he used those 5 kilos to discover THC (marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient) in the 1960s, and then later discovered the structure of CBD (its non-psychoactive ingredient, often used for medicinal purposes). Over the years, the U.S.'s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has funded much of his extensive research, including examining the effects of marijuana on epilepsy, nausea, anxiety and schizophrenia.

Below is a Q&A with Mechoulam, lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

Did you just walk into the police station and say, “Hey, can I have your weed?”

Well, not exactly. I called the police and asked whether they could give one of my young researchers, which was me, cannabis for research. Then I heard a guy on the other side shouting, “Is he reliable?” and then the director, who barely knew me, said, “Yes, he’s reliable.”

They said come over and get cannabis. I went there, drank coffee with the policemen and got 5 kilos of cannabis, hashish. Turns out I should’ve gotten a permit from the Ministry of Health, and they were not too happy with me. I went there and apologized, and then I went back to the police with a permit. 

Are you surprised that in the U.S., legalization hasn’t moved more quickly? Why hasn’t it?  

It has been prohibited for so long that people associate medical marijuana with recreational marijuana. There should be complete separation between recreational marijuana and medical.

Medical marijuana should be developed as a medicine advance, according to strict rules. Recreational marijuana is a social issue, and has to be decided by the population.

Should medical marijuana be legalized in the U.S.?

Medical marijuana should be legalized in my view, but it should be well regulated. In Israel, a person cannot go to a pharmacy or a place and buy medical marijuana. A physician—a specialist in the disease the person has—has to apply to the ministry.

They have a department that deals with medical marijuana. Every single case has to be approved by physicians. For diseases that are not on an approved list, the physician or the minister have to decide.

Why did you choose to make medical marijuana the focus of your career?

I am a chemist, and I work on the chemistry of natural products, mostly chemistry of plant products. I was looking for compounds or for plants that have active constituents whose chemistry is not well known. If the chemistry of material is not well known, then one cannot move ahead with pharmacology. We cannot just take a plant and say, “Take it; it’s good for whatever illness.” If we want to make it a drug of the 21st century, the chemistry has to be well known.

Why are people still hesitant?

One problem both in the States and in Israel is that physicians don’t really know much about marijuana—they’ve never studied it at school. So, in Israel, the ministry organizes courses for physicians, and they have to take these courses to be allowed to deal with marijuana. They are usually for a few months, for one day a week.