By Omer Friedman
A HIGH TIMES reader discovers his birthright as the grandson of one of the Israeli scientists who discovered THC in 1964. Plus: An exclusive interview with Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, the ‘head’ scientist in charge of that project.
I was born in 1984 in Santa Clara, CA—to Israeli immigrants—and lived in Silicon Valley most of my life. When I was a child, I’d make yearly pilgrimages to visit my extended family back in Israel, and on these trips my mother would take me to visit her father—my grandfather—at the laboratory where he worked before he died. Habib Edery had immigrated to Israel from Argentina in the early 1950s, shortly after the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, and worked in a lab as a pharmacologist doing all kinds of experiments for the government. He had a particular interest in psychopharmacology (the study of drugs that affect the brain), specifically substances that come from nature. Inside the labs, I would see all sorts of monkeys that my grandfather was conducting experiments on. It wasn’t until I grew older that I started to understand the “higher” purpose of some of these experiments.
When I turned 18, I was living in the US and, though living abroad provided an exemption from mandatory service in the Israeli military, I decided to volunteer anyway. I moved to Israel, leaving my friends and family behind, and was assigned in November 2002 to an airborne infantry unit. Throughout my service, friends of mine from the US would come and visit, and I’d occasionally take them for dinner at my grandmother’s house. On one of these occasions, in July 2004, I was eating dinner at her house with two of my friends when the conversation drifted to the topic of my grandfather and his research. Having previously been informed that my grandfather used to “experiment with marijuana” (based on the little I knew about his research), my friends decided to find out more and began peppering my grandmother with questions. Slightly embarrassed to be discussing weed with Grandma, and seeing that this conversation would clearly carry on with or without me, I seized the opportunity to excuse myself and go to the bathroom. As I re-entered the room a few minutes later, I caught the last part of my grandmother’s sentence: “...and Omer’s grandfather discovered THC.” I was in shock. I couldn’t believe my ears. After calming down a bit, I managed to ask a few questions of my own. As it turns out, my grandfather was part of a team of researchers that discovered tetrahydrocannabinol—the active chemical that makes marijuana such a special herb. They were the first to break down the plant and isolate its different molecules, which were then tested on monkeys.
I’d heard before that THC was discovered in Israel and knew my grandfather had done some work in the field, but I’d never made the connection. That night, a little skeptical but eager to learn, I looked around on the Internet but was disappointed to find almost nothing on my grandfather. What I did find out was that a man named Dr. Raphael Mechoulam claimed to have discovered THC. I asked my grandmother about him, and she explained that he was the chemist in charge of the experiment and the molecule separation, but that he’d needed a pharmacologist—my grandfather, Dr. Habib Edery—to do the actual testing of the individual molecules.
For the next few weeks, I never missed an opportunity to remind my friends of my newly discovered birthright. One friend, who was enrolled in a class at the University of California at Berkeley that covered neurochemistry and psychopharmacology, told me that his class had just studied the discovery and isolation of THC, which he described as a very significant event in psychopharmacology. He related that my grandfather’s research had been published in the journal Science, in a seminal article called “Chemical Basis of Hashish Activity.” He even sent me a copy.
After reading the highly technical description of the experiment and about the reactions of the monkeys—but barely managing to understand any of it—the thought dawned on me that my grandmother might have some of my grandfather’s old research notes stashed away. Sure enough, she had all of his old papers stored in a box in the attic, mostly written in illegible handwriting. Flipping through the contents, I came across lots of his work, mainly experiments having to do with things found in nature, like snake venom, for example. All the while, my grandmother was telling me stories of how my grandfather would return from work on some days with a big jar of marijuana and how all of his friends would kid him about “bringing work home with him,” which he always laughed off. Every furlough I had from the army, I would make it a point to stop at my grandmother’s and take some time to go through and read more about the experiments. After enough rummaging around, I eventually found a few original printouts of “Chemical Basis of Hashish Activity.”
Then, last September, while on operational duty inside the Gaza Strip, my outpost was ambushed, a hand grenade exploded and a few pieces of shrapnel entered my leg. In recovery, I was visited by a friend from the US who brought a copy of HIGH TIMES to keep me busy in the hospital and in the coming months before I returned to active service. Flipping through the pages, I was delighted to come across a brief article about an experiment the Israeli military was conducting using marijuana to help soldiers who had been injured in battle and were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (“Military Marijuana,” HIGH TIMES Grow America #6). Obviously, I was very excited and wrote to HIGH TIMES to find out more about this experiment, also explaining its relevance to my current situation. The magazine responded with a lot more information about the program, including the fact that the experiment was being headed by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam—the same man who’d worked with my grandfather 40 years earlier. While thanking HIGH TIMES for the extra info, I explained how my grandfather and Dr. Mechoulam had worked together on the discovery of THC and detailed all the recent events involving my discovery and my injury. I was very excited by all this, but I imagined it was more of a sentimental story and that not everyone would find it as fascinating as I did. That being said, imagine my excitement when an editor from HIGH TIMES replied to me, interested in finding out more information and possibly having me write a feature for the magazine.
Having just been released from the hospital with promises from doctors that I was embarking on a vacation of at least a couple of months from the army, I decided that this was no coincidence and dedicated my recovery period to writing this article and “medicating myself back to good health.” As I researched and discovered more relevant information, this became a quest not only to contribute a great story, but to really understand my grandfather. Because he died when I was quite young, anything I knew about him came from my mother and grandmother. But as I learned more and more about him, the tables turned a bit and I was soon teaching my family things they didn’t know.
The final portion of this article (which you are now reading) was to be an interview with Dr. Mechoulam, set up at the urging of HIGH TIMES.
After failing on my first few attempts, I was finally able to reach Dr. Mechoulam and set a date for the interview. I live in the north of Israel and had to travel six hours south—a trip that involved trains, buses, taxis and a lot of walking—to finally arrive at his office at the Hebrew University’s School of Pharmacy, located in the Hadassah Medical Center in the Ein Karem area of Jerusalem. This travel nightmare didn’t bother me in the least, however, because I was excited to bring together everything I had either heard or found out on my own, and to discuss it with someone with the insight to lay it out clearly for me and offer perspective on what it all meant. Dr. Mechoulam turned out to be very cooperative and honest, and not too busy to explain everything for me in laymen’s terms. The interview went very well, and no subject was taboo. It was an amazing experience to meet someone who had not only known and worked with my grandfather, but could also—as an authority on THC—answer all of my questions. Besides discussing everything in an understandable way, he also explained to me what exactly my grandfather did and confirmed that he had a big part in the discovery of THC.
Though I unfortunately wasn’t able to participate in Dr. Mechoulam’s more recent experiment with the Israeli army, I have since recovered from my wounds and returned to active service as a soldier defending my country, and also as a grandson doing my best to live out my grandfather’s legacy.
How did you come to work with my grandfather? What was his role in the discovery of THC?
We first met sometime in the mid-’60s at the Weizmann Institute of Science. I was working as a chemist, and as I started researching, I noticed that from a modern perspective, there wasn’t very much known about cannabis—its chemistry wasn’t completely clear, as opposed to the chemistry of, say, opium, which was known very well. Morphine, which is derived from opium, was discovered in the beginning of the 1800s.
One of the reasons the research might not have progressed is that it’s very hard to work with these chemicals because of legal constraints regarding their use. There was a general idea about the active component of cannabis and what its structure looked like, but it wasn’t completely clear and was never checked in a reliable manner. If you don’t have an identified substance, then you can’t do scientific research. You can’t say, “Oh, I made an extract and I gave it to the soldier,” because then someone else would say, “Great, how much did you give the soldier?” “Two milligrams of the extract.” “But how much is in the extract?” “I don’t know…” This isn’t science. And because of this inability to separate the compounds, there was no serious research.
I began work on a small scale at first, isolating compounds. The first article was published in 1963 about a compound that was separated, but its structure was still unknown. It was called a cannabidiol. Despite this, we still hadn’t discovered the active component. To separate an active component, the chemist needs biological feedback. First, when you get raw hashish, the substances under study need to be extracted. The acceptable technique is to take the compound and separate the components that are already known into fractions—every fraction containing a certain number of components. Next, the activity of every one of these fractions is studied. The inactive ones are thrown away, and attention is moved to the active fractions. These are also separated and their ingredients studied. After a few separations, you come across the active component. This whole process requires strict cooperation with a pharmacologist or a biochemist to determine what is active and what is not. Here is where I turned to your grandfather.
We had met at conferences, but until then we hadn’t worked together. I wanted him because he was very interested in psychopharmacology—substances that affect the brain—and conducted his tests on monkeys, something nobody else had access to. It’s very hard to work with monkeys because of restrictions.
This cooperation lasted many years. The team that started the chemistry research was Yechiel Gaoni, a young man that later advanced to be a professor at the Institute, and myself. Your grandfather and Yona Grunfeld were the pharmacological team. In 1964, Yechiel Gaoni and I proved the structure of the active component. Simultaneously, Habib and Yona published a pharmacological study with the separated component and the deciphered structure—tetrahydrocannabinol. Our paper was called “Observation of Structured Elucidation of the Active Component of Hashish.” Theirs was called “Pharmacological Activity of THC—the Active Component of Hashish.” Both came out at the same time. One cited the other. Pharmacological work legitimized chemical work and vice versa. This was the main project that we did together: discovery of the active component of hashish. Though we published independently, later we published a few things together, including a very important one in Science called “Chemical Basis of Hashish Activity.”
Your grandfather was an excellent pharmacologist and a very nice person to work with.
What does it mean to “discover” THC?
There are at least two aspects to the discovery of a natural product. One is the pure intellectual satisfaction and the other is “What does it do?”
There’s satisfaction in being able to identify the active component in a plant or in an animal. Until that time, usually people know the plant may or may not have a certain type of activity, but until the actual component has been identified, it’s little less than impossible to do quantitative work. And without quantitative work, there’s no science. Without the quantitative aspects, people do not want to do any research. We identified the actual component of tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, way back in 1964, and since then there have been thousands of papers. The reason is that they could do the work quantitatively. They could measure the amount of cannabis being given—not just say, “He smoked and he felt high,” or whatever, which is nice but doesn’t lead you anywhere, because how much did he take? How much was absorbed? Do the compounds act by themselves or by metabolites? There are all kinds of questions that have to be answered.
What was the purpose of the experiment that led to this discovery? Where was your research supposed to lead?
Well, you never know what it leads to. We hoped that it would lead to examination and understanding of brain functions, and that’s what happened—to an extent we never expected. When I started to work on cannabis in 1963, I thought the project would take me a couple of months, but 40 years later we’re still working. There have been thousands and thousands of papers on the activity and the chemistry, biochemistry, pharmacology, clinical effects and psychological effects. We discovered that cannabis is part of a very, very basic system of the brain that was unknown at that time—it became known later because of this work.
What’s the status of the experiment I read about in HIGH TIMES, the one to help battle-injured Israeli Defense Forces soldiers experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder?
This is something that the army is interested in, and we’re going to help them. Basically, a German group and our group found that THC has something to do with forgetting, which is just as important as remembering. If you don’t forget anything, then you’re in bad shape. Cannabinoid receptors and the cannabinoid system are involved in forgetting. For example, you can take a mouse and couple a noise stimulus with an electric shock. They are not very happy with being shocked, so after a few days they learn that whenever there’s a noise they’ll get shocked. That’s a Pavlovian type of experiment. And once they’ve been conditioned, if they then hear the noise without the shock, they’ll still be afraid for the first day or two, but then they see that there is noise and there is no shock, so they slowly forget it and that’s that. But by genetic methods, you can breed mice that do not have the cannabinoid system, and these mice don’t forget—they go on and on and on reacting to the noise. Now this is what happens in post-traumatic stress disorder. People get a shock: a bomb next to them, a friend dies next to them—it’s a shock. Normally, people are in shock for a limited period of time before they slowly forget it. But some do not. This is the post-traumatic stress disorder: They wake up in the middle of the night with the scary thing coming back to them. They are afraid to go to sleep. So we hope that by giving them the thing they miss, the THC—we can’t give them the endocannabinoids that form in the brain—we can help them forget, help them sleep, help them relax. We hope that this will work, but it has not started yet because of technical problems.
So this is the result of the military coming to you?
How do you think the issue of medical marijuana should be handled? What is the Israeli government’s position on this issue?
Well, THC is an approved drug. In the US it’s sold.
Are you talking about something like California’s medical-marijuana status?
No, we are speaking of THC now. THC is an approved drug. THC is also approved in Israel. I give THC to all kinds of patients through the hospital.
How is it prescribed—in pills?
It’s prescribed as oil. If the doctor thinks that the patient would be helped, then they have to go through a certain procedure that can be approved by the Ministry of Health. The patient gets the THC, he puts it under the tongue, and in many cases it helps alleviate all kinds of diseases where other things don’t help. So THC is an approved drug for certain conditions. Medical marijuana is more of a problem, because medical marijuana is not a defined quantity. You can’t say, “Smoke marijuana and it will cure you,” because in some cases it has a little bit of THC and in some cases it has a lot. There is also a second compound called cannabidiol that is a very potent anti-inflammatory agent. We found that it’s good in rheumatoid arthritis—very potent. So one has to know how to get it. There is no drug that is given by smoking today. Nothing, not a single one—this is the only one. So medical marijuana, if it is ever approved, will probably be approved for a short period of time until people have a well-defined compound. There is a company in the UK (GW Pharmaceuticals) that is doing this. They are growing marijuana with an exact ratio of CBD [cannabidiol] to THC, so the patient who gets this kind of medical marijuana knows exactly what they’re being treated with.
So this marijuana would be for a certain disease or treatment?
Yes—for example, consider multiple sclerosis. They give CBD with THC. They do not smoke it; they spray it under the tongue. This is medical marijuana given in a reasonable way. Smoking is a problem. Because there is nothing else, people are fighting for medical marijuana, which is a positive thing but should be kept within the framework of drugs. In Holland, they sell medical marijuana, and you know exactly what’s in it. But just selling medical marijuana with nothing in it or a lot in it—that doesn’t make much sense. You have to know exactly what you’re administering. Take Valium: If you don’t know how much you’ve got in a pill, you can take two and a half milligrams or you can take 20. With 20, you’re out for I don’t know how long; with two and a half, maybe just a little while. So you have to know exactly. Drugs are not chocolate.
What portion of the experimentation and study of marijuana since the ’60s has taken place in Israel?
We’re a major center of research in cannabinoids. There are now hundreds of groups that work on cannabinoids. We were lucky with the identification of THC, which is considered a major advance.
How do you think Israel measures up in terms of tolerance toward medical use of marijuana compared to the other countries?
As a matter of fact, Israel is pretty liberal. Less than Holland, but we can administer it as long as it goes through a hospital and with the approval of the district pharmacist. The problem is that the physicians are not aware of the potential. If they were, it could have a much greater impact. In this case, the government isn’t the problem—it’s the physicians’ awareness of this option. We found, for example, 10 years ago that children who were given anti-cancer chemotherapy had nothing to help them at that time: They were vomiting, they had nausea, the families were in stress, the patients were in stress—it was terrible. So we started administering THC. We gave it 400 times. And we didn’t have a single case of vomiting, and the treatments went much better. Since then, the ministry has been quite happy with us. So I can’t complain. Maybe one of the reasons is that the chief pharmacist at the ministry is an ex-student of mine. But she really thinks, as do the people in the ministry itself, that it’s a useful drug when used under certain conditions.
Who came up with the actual name, tetrahydrocannabinol?
THC is a reduced form of cannabinol, hence it is called tetrahydrocannabinol. It has four hydrogens more than cannabinol. This name has been used for a mixture of related compounds for 65 years. The exact name, delta-9-THC, was given by us. Originally we called it delta-1-THC for chemical-nomenclature reasons.
Has working with THC ever caused you problems in your professional life?
What are your views on legalization or decriminalization of marijuana for personal use?
It’s a long story. Legalization in Israel is impossible, and I am against it. I wish we could stop tobacco as well. Medical marijuana should be legalized, as in Holland, and should be sold in pharmacies to ensure lack of fungi, insects and chemicals.
Have you ever ingested marijuana?
No. I have nothing to hide. One time, intrigued by THC’s effects on human beings, my wife prepared a cake with THC in it. I invited a number of colleagues of mine, including a member of the Israeli Knesset at the time. Can you guess what his reaction was?
He fell asleep?
Quite the opposite—he didn’t stop talking for three hours!