With CBD research gaining ever more ground, it seems that we hear less about the story behind Tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC. THC has spent decades as a focus of discussions surrounding cannabis, but how long has it been in the public consciousness? How has it seemingly been known about since so long before cannabis research was conducted in the US? What effect did an understanding of cannabis’s primary psychoactive chemical have on efforts to reform prohibition laws? What effect did it have on public opinion surrounding cannabis? So many of these questions come to mind when thinking about the history of the molecule.
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.”
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 NIH response to Dr. Mechoulam’s grant request perfectly encapsulated the propaganda of the era. The very term ‘marijuana’ had been propagated so that Americans would associate the plant with the Mexican immigrants and African Americans who so many irrationally distrusted and feared at the time. A year after the NIH rejection, Mechoulam received a call from the same official who he had spoken to at the NIH. Now 1964, the son of a US senator had been caught smoking cannabis. Embarrassingly, when the senator asked them about the harmful effects, they had no researched answers to offer the concerned father. They contacted Mechoulam’s research group in Israel to see what progress, if any, he had made.
It turned out that Mechoulam and his team had since managed to isolate THC as the psychoactive ingredient responsible for the perceptible effects of cannabis. Many times in interviews since, he has attributed his ability to do the research to Israel’s status as having a smaller, more flexible governmental system than in the US. Mechoulam describes the process of acquiring cannabis for research in Israel:
“Our administrative manager knew a guy from his army time who became a senior police officer. He called him and asked if we could get some Lebanese hashish from the storage rooms. Long story short, I went to Tel Aviv, had coffee with the guy and drove back on the bus with 5 kilos of hashish.”
“In the U.S., I would have gone straight to prison.”
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. In the 80s, he experimented with the results of cannabis used to treat epilepsy, with promising results.
In reference to modern efforts to treat epilepsy with cannabis, Mechoulam has said “The results are once again great, but it has been 35 years, for God’s sake, so many families have suffered since then.”
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.
Medical Marijuana Research in the United States
Since 1970, cannabis has been categorized as the most dangerous, least useful category of drugs by the Controlled Substances Act. As a Schedule I drug, cannabis is considered to possess no medical value. Clinical research requires a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) license, and any studies involving cannabis need to also be approved by the Federal and Drug Administration (FDA). Furthermore, scientists who wish to obtain cannabis must go through the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), who are famous for blocking such efforts. Seeing it as a linchpin in the War on Drugs, the NIDA has done everything it can to block studies which may yield positive information about the reality of cannabis.
To make matters worse, the University of Mississippi was, until recently, the only permitted source for FDA-approved cannabis research, which insured that supply was never able to meet demand.
The mission of the NIDA, as mandated by congress, is to research the harmful effects of controlled substances, and to minimize drug abuse. This means that one of the primary gatekeepers of cannabis research in the US is legally mandated to block impartial cannabis research.
University of Massachusetts Amherst professor and horticulturist Lyle Cracker said "If you're going to run a trial to show this is going to have positive effects, they're essentially not going to allow it." This is what leads to a vicious cycle in which these institutions are able to continue to maintain cannabis’s status as a Schedule I drug, and block any real research that would suggest otherwise. The DEA’s recent, mind-boggling announcement that cannabis would remain as Schedule I is an example of the results of this system. The official position of the federal government on cannabis, according to a 2011 document, is as follows:
“The clear weight of the currently available evidence supports [Schedule I] classification, including evidence that smoked marijuana has a high potential for abuse, has no accepted medicinal value in treatment in the United States, and evidence that there is a general lack of accepted safety for its use even under medical supervision… Specifically, smoked marijuana has not withstood the rigors of science–it is not medicine, and it is not safe.”
The mountain of evidence and common knowledge to the contrary is dismissed as anecdotal or not up to DEA standards. With the NIDA effectively blocking other research, they are able to make sure this remains the case.
Research into medical cannabis has been stifled by institutions stuck on decade old falsehoods about 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.
Despite all this, this past August, the Obama administration announced their plan to loosen these restrictions on cannabis grown for research. Their plan will expand the number of universities who are allowed to supply research grade cannabis, enough to be able to meet the growing demand among researchers. In particular, high THC strains of cannabis, which had been hard to acquire for researchers, are likely to become more available as competition compels these new growers to meet demand.
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.