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The True History of THC


Watch any of the most popular cannabis documentaries, browse through the major cannabis websites, and read the best-known books on cannabis, and you are likely to learn that the discovery of THC is credited to an Israeli chemist named Raphael Mechoulam. The discovery is purported to have been made in Israel in 1964 during a series of experiments conducted to study the active ingredients in cannabis. Without doing much digging into the subject, I myself accepted the story that Mechoulam was the discoverer of THC — that is, until I was informed by an article on CannabisDigest.ca by Canadian blogger Judith Stamps about the little-known controversy surrounding the true history of THC.

The Popular Narrative

Raphael Mechoulam, a professor and researcher at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was born in Sophia, Bulgaria in 1930 to a Sephardic Jewish family. His parents, well-off and well-educated, were forced to move the family as a result of the National Socialist policies of 1930’s Germany, which the Bulgarian government was sympathetic to. His father, a physician and head of a hospital in Berlin, was sent to work at a concentration camp during WWII, which he survived. In 1949, Mechoulam’s family immigrated to Israel, where he obtained a PhD at the Weizmann Institute and later completed postdoctoral studies at the Rockefeller Institute in New York.

Mechoulam is a big deal in the scientific community; the scope and impact of his work with cannabis should not be under-appraised. Working with his team, he isolated THC, meaning that he extracted pure THC crystals from hashish. The precise chemical structure of THC had never been elucidated prior to Mechoulam’s work, as he had new technology available to him that previous researchers did not. The method used was called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy, and this undoubtedly paved the way for many of the more recent advancements in cannabis research. He and his associates also achieved the total synthesis of THC, CBD, and a host of other cannabinoids. By “total synthesis” I mean that he created THC and the other chemicals synthetically, from scratch in a laboratory.

His later work led him to join forces with research associates Bill Devane and Lumír Ondřej Hanuš, who isolated the first endocannabinoid ever to be identified, Anandamide, in 1988. Remember: endo-cannabinoid means a chemical created in your body that fits the same CB1 and CB2 receptors that cannabis targets. In this case, Anandamide activates these receptors similarly to THC. The word Ananda means “bliss” in the ancient Hindu language of Sanskrit, which is fitting because Anandamide is responsible for feelings of bliss in the mammalian brain. In addition to being produced in the brain, this compound is found naturally in chocolate and other foods. Devane and Hanuš’s discovery of Anandamide was the critical first step in the mapping of the endocannabinoid system.

In Mechoulam’s work as a professor at Hebrew University in Israel, he has influenced a number of other major breakthroughs in cannabis research. His post-graduate student Shimon Ben Shabat, for example, coined the term “entourage effect” to describe the heightened effect of

THC when in the presence of other cannabinoids. Ben Shabat also identified the second endocannabinoid ever, called 2-AG, which acts on cannabinoid receptors in the way that CBD does.This was a known chemical compound prior to Ben Shabat’s work, but he and Mechoulam were the first to discover that 2-AG naturally occured in mammals in 1994.

Since then, Mechoulam has travelled the world lecturing about cannabis research and accepting praise for his contributions to science. He has received honorary doctorates from two universities, been bestowed multiple prizes and awards, and is now president of the International Cannabinoid Research Society.

Clearly, Raphael Mechoulam has played an absolutely instrumental role in the furthering of cannabis science throughout the years.

But who done it?

As we learned, Mechoulam and his colleagues successfully discovered two endocannabinoids,  isolated and synthesized cannabinoids in the laboratory, and made numerous other leaps forward in the field of cannabis research — but did he discover THC?

This question was answered by Judith Stamps in her aforementioned article, as she described a set of US Government experiments beginning during World War II (1942-3) and lasting until the 1970’s, which tested the effectiveness of various substances as potential “truth serums” for use by the US Military. The researchers wanted to see if cannabis acted in a way that made it impossible to lie. In the research papers, THC is mentioned by name, which begs the question “how did Mechoulam discover something in 1964 which had already been named by 1942?”

The Answer

Roger Adams was an American organic chemist who was born in Boston in 1889 to the prominent Adam’s family. He was a direct descendant of the grandfather of one of America’s founding fathers, John Adams. In 1900, his family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts where he attended Harvard University and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry in 1909. He later completed his PhD at Radcliffe University in 1912, while studying under the auspices of professor H.A. Torrey and others. After studying abroad in Berlin, Germany, he returned to Harvard where he was hired as a research assistant and later as a professor before eventually beginning his own research program.

In 1916, Adams began working as an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, ultimately becoming the head of his department in 1926. During his 56-year academic career at UIUC, he made a number of significant discoveries in the field of organic chemistry. Interestingly, from 1940 to 1949, Adams worked for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics under Harry Anslinger who wanted to find the so-called “active principle” in “marihuana”. Adams conducted 27 studies on cannabis, all published in the American Journal of Chemistry. Throughout his research for the FBN, he made a series of major discoveries in cannabis, including the identification and isolation of CBD, CBN and the creation of a number of synthetic cannabinoid analogs. Most notable and relevant to this article, however, was his discovery of THC in 1940.

That’s right, when Raphael Mechoulam was only 11 years old, Roger Adams had already discovered THC, and the scientific literature still exists to prove it.

In a study in the Journal of the American Chemical Society titled Structure of Cannabidiol: Isomerization to Tetrahydrocannabinols, for example, Adams described a process of chemical reactions to convert CBD to THC.

Numerous other Adams studies are a click away on the internet making reference to THC, and even displaying it’s (inferred) chemical structure. I say inferred because, remember, the technologies that were later available to Mechoulam and his associates allowed the precise chemical structure of cannabinoids to be known, whereas Roger Adams in the 1940’s could only make educated guesses as to what a THC molecule looked like. And guess what… he essentially got it right.  

It’s also important to note that Adams’ work was by no means the first attempt to find the active principles of cannabis. A number of other researchers before him, going back to the mid-1800’s, had made efforts to discover what gave cannabis and hashish their psychoactive effects.

But, as far as I am aware after looking into the subject, Roger Adams and associates were the first to properly identify THC, Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol, as the active psychoactive compound in cannabis, in 1940. It could be that more information is eventually uncovered that proves an even earlier discovery of THC, but one thing’s for sure: it’s a mistake to claim that it took place in Israel in 1964. Even Mechoulam himself has not explicitly stated (as far as I can find) that he made the discovery. This contention is maintained mostly by cannabis media sources, blogs, and documentaries, and simply hasn’t been corrected yet.

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