Who Discovered THC and How?

THC has spent decades as a focus of discussions surrounding cannabis, but how long has it been in the public consciousness?

In the early sixties, the propaganda and public discourse surrounding cannabis was at something of an all-time low. The revolution in public opinion on cannabis was still a few years away, and propaganda campaigns had been using racism, xenophobia, and outrageous claims to raise anti-cannabis sentiment since the 1930s. Prohibition had been in place since 1937. In those decades, these campaigns made every effort to associate cannabis with violence and harder drugs in the public mind. In the 50s, simple possession could lead to decades in prison – a particularly common occurrence at the time for non-white Americans.

The discovery of the THC compound – more than 50 years ago – started a revolution in thinking about cannabis that carries on to this day. As it turns out, THC has been making its way into the public consciousness since 1964, when it was discovered by Israeli organic chemist Raphael Mechoulam. Doctor Mechoulam had asked the US National Institute of Health for a grant to study cannabis in 1963. He was promptly turned away, with the health agency telling him “marijuana is not an American problem.”

The history of Israel marks it as a place of intense spirituality for many religions, most notably in Jewish, Christian and Islamic cultures. Ironically, a much more recent counter-culture can also point to the Holy Land as a major component of its heritage, not to mention the ground zero, of sorts, of the modern medical-marijuana movement.

In 1964, at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam – along with his colleagues, Dr. Yehiel Gaoni and Dr. Haviv Edery – succeeded in the very first isolation and elucidation of the active constituent of cannabis, D9-tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC.

Mechoulam describes the process of acquiring cannabis for research in Israel:

“I went to the administrative head of my institute and asked him whether he had a contact with the police and he said, ‘Sure, no problem.’ He called a number and asked if we could get some Lebanese hashish from the storage rooms. From the other side I could hear him saying, ‘Is he reliable?’ And the head of the institute said, ‘Of course he’s reliable.’ So he invited me over to the police, and I took five kilos of hashish.”
It turned out I was not allowed to have it, and he was not allowed to give it to me. It was the Ministry of Health that should have permitted it, but in a small country, I went to the Ministry of Health, and I apologized, and any time I needed more hashish I went to the Ministry of Health and had no problems.”

Mechoulam has spent the decades since researching cannabis and how it interacts with the human body. He has also discovered the cannabinoid receptors already built into the human body. In searching for the role of the receptors, his team then discovered the endocannabinoids naturally synthesized by the human body.

“The endocannabinoid system is very important. Almost all illnesses we have are linked to it in some way or another. And that is very strange. We don’t have many systems which get involved with every illness,” says Mechoulam

“It all depends on how intensely the receptors become stimulated. Take dopamine, for example. If our bodies have too little dopamine, we can develop Parkinson’s; if they have too much, we can suffer from schizophrenia. It’s the same thing with cannabinoids. Receptor CB2 is a protector. It protects the body from a multitude of things. CB1 works in different ways, depending on whether the dosage is high or low. In other words, as long as the levels of Anandamide—and other endocannabinoids since discovered—remain stable, the human body will perform many of its functions correctly. If these compounds become unbalanced, science could use cannabinoids like THC and cannabidiol, naturally occurring in marijuana plants, to cure many ailments.”

Mechoulam’s research has stayed ahead of the curve when it comes to the willingness and ability of other scientists to seriously look into cannabis. Israel itself has become a center for advanced research and progress with regard to medical cannabis.

While progress is being made in terms of legalization, the status of cannabis on a federal level must change for the research to be widely accepted. Even as legalization seems like an increasing possibility, it is truly a shame that decades have passed with so much good research ignored. None of this could have happened without Ralph Mechoulam’s discovery of THC in 1964, which not only encouraged others to build on his research, but was also completed at a time when much of the world was tightening restrictions on such research.