Raphael Mechoulam May Be The Father of Cannabis But He Did Not Discover THC
Roger Adams discovered THC, not Raphael Mechoulam. The truth is a bizarre story involving prohibitionist influence, bad timing, nylon, and publication pressures.
Based at the University of Tel Aviv, Raphael Mechoulam is undoubtedly the Grandfather of Cannabis Science. In the 1960s, his chemistry research team was the world’s first to completely isolate, characterize, and synthesize THC, the chemical in cannabis that gets us high. Since then, he’s been non-stop, investigating cannabis’s promise for treating cancer, osteoporosis, and a host of other maladies.
Today, at 88 years old, Mechoulam is a headliner at scientific conferences. Weed activists from around the world line up to touch him, like the Pope of Pot. He’s the most cited cannabis scientist in history, as he’s published more studies about this plant than any other person.
Mechoulam, however, didn’t discover THC. Mechoulam’s illustrious career is the continuation of another’s work, the legendary American chemist Roger Adams.
Why has Mechoulam overshadowed Adams? Did cannabis historians just not know about him, or was he intentionally left out of the cool kids club?
First: Who Was Roger Adams?
Born in 1889, Adams graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Harvard, in 1908. In 1916, he began teaching chemistry at the University of Illinois, his second home for over fifty years.
While at the University of Illinois, he discovered new methods for creating medicines, diagnostic tools, and industrial processes. He advised 250 Ph.D. students, of which 184 went on to become Ph.D.’s themselves. According to his biography, he was responsible for producing roughly a quarter of all of Illinois’s Ph.D. graduates from 1920 to 1939. Among those doctorates was Ernest H. Volwiler, who would become president of Abbott Laboratories (more on that in a second). Another of his doctorate students was Wallace Carothers, the inventor of nylon (more on that in a second, too).
Adams never appeared in documentaries or TV shows like Mechoulam, but chemists remember him. The American Chemical Society still lauds him as one of their greatest heavyweights. The National Academy of Sciences published a (short) book on his life. His old home base, the University of Illinois, has a webpage dedicated to him, even though he’s been dead for almost a century.
On that note, when he passed away in 1971, The New York Times paid homage, too. One of his achievements noted by the Times was the discovery, elucidation, and synthesis of CBD, a non-psychoactive chemical in cannabis known for its medicinal properties.
How Did Adams Stumble on Cannabis?
Adams took an early interest in cannabis before being approached by Harry Anslinger. Yes, that Harry Anslinger.
Anslinger – undoubtedly the Father of Modern Cannabis Prohibition – was the first Commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics, a Treasury Department agency that would one day become the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Anslinger needed scientific proof that cannabis posed a major health and security threat to the US. To sell this lie, scientists needed to know the mechanism, or “active principle,” in cannabis that got people high.
Because of Adams’ previous work in weed, Anslinger figured the chemist would be a perfect addition to Team Prohibition. Instead, Adams ended up being a bit of a headache, if only because Adams’s scientific curiosity was stronger than Anslinger’s racist politics.
THC, CBD, and the Rest Is History
Although several pharmaceutical chemists extracted purer and purer forms of cannabis oil since the 1700s, Adams is the first to document the existence of THC and CBD. Through experimentation and elucidation, he not only identified the basic chemical constituents of these two amazing molecules, he also got pretty damn close to figuring out their chemical structures as well. Close enough that we could say he did this before Mechoulam. Could.
Chemical structure is, in many respects, the philosopher’s stone in chemistry. If chemists know how a molecule’s atoms are arranged in space, they can predict all sorts of things, like how the molecule will react in our bodies, how the molecule will react with other molecules, and other miscellaneous properties like boiling point and degradation products.
Adams first published his findings with THC in the early 1940s. He published his discovery of CBD in 1940, an accomplishment he does commonly get credit for (as noted in the New York Times article above). That same year, he published a method for converting CBD to THC. By 1949, he had synthesized a catalog of THC analogs, essentially the first artificial cannabinoids.
However, Adams’s work with cannabis later blew up in his face. According to No Boundaries: University of Illinois Vignettes, the chemist read one of his cannabis chemistry papers at the National Academy of Sciences in 1940. During this reading, he noted that he tried cannabis and that it instilled “pleasant effects.”
Anslinger was appalled that Adams, his rock-star scientist, would promote cannabis to the youth.
Then director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, also took notice. After Adams’s speech, Hoover began investigating the chemist for possible communist ties. The investigation prevented Adams from taking a top government research position offered by Vannevar Bush (the father of US president George H.W. Bush).
So if Adams paved the way for Mechoulam, why do cannabis historians never mention him? Judith Stamps at Cannabis Digest provided an excellent analysis for Adams’s mysteriously absent role in cannabis history, but I’m going to delve a bit deeper here by proposing two possible explanations.
Theory 1: “Publish or Perish”
There are two obvious reasons why Adams may not be remembered today among cannabis enthusiasts. The first is that Adams didn’t publish his findings at the right time with the best methods, so he was simply forgotten. The second, which is a bit more nefarious, is that cannabis historians did know about Adams, but intentionally left him out of the histories due to his post-Anslinger legacies.
With the first reason, Raphael Mechoulam made history when he published this paper with Dr. Yechiel Gaoni in 1964. In it, various forms of THC are presented, and this paper definitively concludes that not only does THC get us high (which Mechoulam confirmed by illegally consuming the THC extract at home), they used some fancy tech to determine THC’s structure.
Stamps touched on this in her blog post, but I’ll go into more detail now. Mechoulam and Gaoni were fortunate since they had access to nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, a method for studying molecular structure that didn’t come about until the 1950s. NMR basically uses electromagnetic waves to vibrate the atoms in a molecule to generate a graph. Scientists can derive the structure of a molecule based on that graph. Recall that Adams stopped working with cannabis in the late 1940s, just a few years before NMR became a thing.
How did Adams figure out the structures of THC and CBD before NMR? He relied on some old school methods, like melting points, but he also used infrared (IR) spectrometry, which became a common chemistry tool by the 1930s (just as Anslinger was kick-starting Reefer Madness). IR spectrometry beams light through a chemical sample to give clues to molecular structure. Much sloppier and less reliable than NMR, but Roger Adams had a gift, and he pinned down the structures of THC and CBD using this relatively primitive instrument.
In science, we often give researchers the credit for discovering something if they publish their results before everyone else. Yet Adams had published his findings two decades before Mechoulam. What gives?
Historically, Mechoulam and Gaoni published at the perfect time. Cannabis had been a fixture of the Beat poets in the 1950s. By the 1960s, the hippie-led Counterculture movement, fueled by weed along with a kaleidoscope of other psychedelics, was well underway. When news of Mechoulam and Gaoni’s research hit the press, they gained instant international fame.
Furthermore, determining the structure of THC with NMR held more weight among chemists than elucidating the structure with IR. Although chemists could say, with pretty decent certainty, that Adams’s structures were sound, having Mechoulam and Gaoni’s NMR data silenced any doubts. This is THC, and this is what it looks like. Case closed.
Finally, there’s the issue of stigma. Adams likely never cared to take credit for discovering THC. He had a long list of other, more socially acceptable accomplishments by then. Cannabis, by the 1940s, had been thoroughly demonized as Devil’s Lettuce. In the 1960s, Americans were loosening up as a culture, and younger Americans didn’t view cannabis with the same disdain as their square parents. So it probably wasn’t difficult for Mechoulam to assume the role as the world’s most distinguished expert on cannabis. Adams had that crown, and he probably didn’t want it after Hoover’s witch hunt.
Theory 2: Intentional Deletion
This is where I venture into pure speculation. For the record, I personally think Theory 1 is the most viable. But hear me out on this one.
What if cannabis historians from the 1960s to the 1990s intentionally left Adams out of the histories? Many of these men and women were incredibly well-read. Surely, they must have known about Adams, especially since many of these authors were alive when Adams was still around. Why would they do this?
First, Adams’s connection with Harry Anslinger cannot be overlooked. Many of our cannabis historians in the 1960s and 1970s weren’t just informing their readers. They were creating a new narrative, too, one that elevated cannabis from the murky haze of prohibition’s lies.
Anslinger, being the Father of Prohibition, isn’t someone we want to associate with cannabis’s greatness. Anslinger is, for all intents and purposes, the enemy. Because Adams got his big break working for Anslinger, that alone may be enough to pass over the chemist.
When we look at Adams’s legacies as an educator, we start to get a different picture. One that the conspiracy theorists would have a field day with if they even knew about Adams in the first place.
At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned two of Adams’s students: Ernest H. Volwiler and Wallace Carothers. And their tutelages under Adams are suspicious.
Carothers is the inventor of nylon, a synthetic fabric that revolutionized the textiles industry. Nylon is basically synthetic silk. Silk is expensive and subject to heavy tariffs, as it’s imported from Asia. Nylon, however, could be made in a lab with chemicals any organic chemist has lying around.
There’s a conspiracy theory about DuPont – the corporation that patented nylon – and Harry Anslinger’s Reefer Madness. I won’t get into it here (mainly because I think it lacks sufficient evidence), but basically DuPont wanted hemp outlawed so hemp fabrics couldn’t compete with nylon. Enter Anslinger, Adams, and the Marihuana Tax Act, and voila, no more hemp.
Adams’s other famous student was Ernest H. Volwiler, who went on to run Abbot Laboratories. Today, Abbott Laboratories produces Marinol, an FDA-approved THC drug that’s given to HIV and cancer patients.
Marinol is the brand name for dronabinol, which is just a fancy name for lab-made THC. Adams first synthesized dronabinol in 1947, so it’s not a stretch that Volwiler first learned of the compound – and how to make it – while studying under Adams.
Now, Abbott didn’t start officially producing Marinol until the late 1980s, when it got approval from the US FDA. The DEA even rescheduled dronabinol from Schedule I to Schedule II (and later further down to Schedule III) to make way for this pharmaceutical. Some cannabis activists argue that Marinol is one of the reasons why we’ve encountered so many hurdles to legitimize medical cannabis: authorities could always point to Marinol and say, “See, you don’t need weed. You have this (expensive) drug you could use instead.” (Many authorities, namely at NIDA and the FDA, still use this argument to this day.)
What’s my point? My point is, if cannabis historians knew about Adams’s mentorships with the guy who invented nylon and the guy who ran the company that later produced Marinol, maybe omitting him from history was seen as necessary. Again, if you’re creating a new narrative to liberate people from prohibition, the last thing you want to do is associate scientific glory to the chemist who may have been largely responsible for prohibition in the first place.
Mechoulam, in contrast to Adams, has never been shy about promoting cannabis medicine. Although Mechoulam does not support recreational legalization, he has spent his entire life fighting restrictions on cannabis research, so a new generation of pharmaceuticals made from cannabis can become reality. If any living scientist deserves the glory, it’s Mechoulam, for this reason alone.
However, I wouldn’t kick Adams to the curb entirely. According to government documents dug up by Antique Cannabis Book website, Adams was involved in an epilepsy study for CBD – way back in 1949. We don’t know if that study ever took off (and likely didn’t, since such a study would’ve put a damper on prohibition), but it’s possible Adams knew damn well that cannabis could be a tried-and-true medicine. After all, he grew up during a time when cannabis was listed in our pharmacopeias and sold in drug stores.
Is it too late to rehabilitate Adams’s contributions to cannabis science? Chemists remember him as a pioneer – and that includes Dr. Mechoulam himself, who has cited Adams’s work since the 1960s. But how will we – the general public, the lovers of all things cannabis – incorporate him into our new narratives?