Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, the man considered to be the world's most important marijuana researcher, has never even smoked a joint. He has, however, had an insatiable urge to research the drug for the majority of his professional career. He started looking into marijuana in Israel in the 1960s, back when we knew almost nothing about it. In today's culture, with marijuana increasingly becoming legalized for both medicinal and recreational purposes, we need Mechoulam's input more than ever.
Mechoulam is credited with making many of the most important discoveries about marijuana. For instance, he was able to isolate from the plant both THC and cannabidiol. The first is the ingredient that produces a high, the second does not and has been widely used for medicinal purposes. Cannabidiol has been used as a pain reliever, a seizure suppressor, and an anti-inflammatory, among other treatments.
Mechoulam also discovered the receptors in the human body that respond to cannabis and has studied the way cannabinoids interact with them. Says Mechoulam: "The receptors don’t exist because there’s a plant out there. The receptors exist because we produce compounds which bind to these receptors, activate them, and cause activities.”
Mechoulam recently explained his process to Culture magazine. His work concerns products that are found in nature. He became curious about cannabis when he discovered that while morphine had already been isolated from opium, and while cocaine had already been derived from coca leaves, cannabis was still a relative mystery. He decided then that it would be a good topic to research.
Getting started was, however, expectedly difficult, considering the fact that the first experiment Mechoulam ever conducted was with hashish that he obtained from a police locker through an intermedium. This approach to getting marijuana was illegal. However, Mechoulam apologized in person to Israel's Ministry of Health, and any time he needed more hashish for research purposes, he was permitted to go back and get what he needed.
Today, Mechoulam is studying endogenous cannabinoids. These are compounds that humans and animals create naturally, and they exist in the brain and nervous system. Cannabinoids are responsible for influencing everything from someone's appetite and memory to pain and mood. Mechoulam calls the study of endogenous cannabinoids "the [next] phase of cannabis research."
One thing's for sure: we need to know as much about cannabis as we can, and quickly. As it stands, the long-term effects of marijuana are not well understood, which is problematic when we consider the rate at which we are legalizing it. In today's world, Mechoulam is the scientist we need to help us better understand the drug. This becomes especially important when we take into consideration the fact that people will be driving while under its influence, and that legalized recreational marijuana will undoubtedly find its way into juveniles' hands as well.
Advocates of legalizing marijuana argue that it is an effective treatment for conditions like glaucoma, or to relieve the pain from cancer. However, it is important that we clarify whether or not its risks outweigh its benefits.