While Israeli researcher Raphael Mechoulam is typically credited with isolating THC in 1964, a lesser known, but highly influential figure isolated CBD and synthesized THC over 20 years earlier. American chemist and researcher Dr. Roger Adams was the first to isolate CBD and the first to synthesize THC in a lab during the peak of World War II.
Throughout the course of his esteemed career, Dr. Adams published 27 studies on the properties of cannabis in the American Journal of Chemistry, long before most other cannabis-related scientific research took place, and in spite of the rabid “Reefer Madness” attitude of the time. Coincidentally, Dr. Adams is also considered to be influential in the development of post-graduate degrees in America and plant chemistry in general. He conducted research at prestigious schools like Harvard University, Radcliffe College and headed the chemistry department the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for decades.
During World War I, Dr. Adams helped to develop chemical warfare assets with a position under the National Research Council in Washington, D.C. From there, he mostly focused on biochemicals. Just two years after cannabis was first banned federally from pharmacies and drug stores under the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, Dr. Adams received an exclusive and rare license from the U.S. Department of Treasury to obtain cannabis oil for research purposes. By 1939, cannabis was the sole focus of Dr. Adams’ work. Shortly after, he presented a paper to the National Academy of Science on “The Chemistry of Marihuana.” Many more would follow.
“Because of the groundbreaking cannabis research of Dr. Adams at the University of Illinois, dozens of other chemists were able to study the plant. . .”
Dr. Adams’ research into cannabis is one of the chief reasons he became a target of the Federal Bureau of Investigation under Director J. Edgar Hoover. In addition, anyone who could’ve been considered a Communist sympathizer, including Dr. Adams, was deemed a threat due to the political climate of the times. Hoover temporarily blocked Dr. Adams’ security clearance because of his cannabis research and alleged possible ties to Communist authors, but eventually caved and granted him clearance.
Harry J. Anslinger, the nation’s first “Drug Czar,” is widely regarded as one of the galvanizing figures behind the “Reefer Madness” era. Dr. Adams’ research fell under the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, of which Anslinger was appointed commissioner. Dr. Adams and Anslinger personally—and publicly—disagreed on whether people should consume cannabis. Adams believed it had “pleasant effects,” as well as useful analgesic effects, while Anslinger outright rejected the consumption of cannabis in any shape or form.
Dr. Adams isolated CBD from hemp oil in 1940, with help from his colleagues Madison Hunt and J.H. Clark. “In this investigation, Minnesota wild hemp, cut after flowering had begun and before the seed had ‘set’ in the female tops, was used as a raw material,” Dr. Adams wrote on Jan. 1, 1940. “It was extracted with ethanol and the so-called ‘red oil’ containing the active principle or principles was obtained by distillation under diminished pressure.” In 1942, Adams won a patent for his method of isolating CBD. While he was unable to isolate THC from the cannabis plant, he synthesized it by converting the molecular structure of CBD to a THC acetate in a lab. Dr. Adams also documented THC analogs in his lab before technology like a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer was available to future scientists like Mechoulam in the 1960s and beyond.
Shortly after World War II broke out, the Office of Strategic Services—which would evolve into the CIA—considered the properties of cannabinoids as a possible “truth serum” that could be used on U.S. soldiers for the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project was, of course, the U.S. government’s ultra-classified mission to develop the atomic bomb. Over time, the U.S. government would experiment with various chemicals on the county’s own military forces—which is now viewed as completely unethical.
Because of the groundbreaking cannabis research of Dr. Adams at the University of Illinois, dozens of other chemists were able to study the plant including Dr. H. J. Wollner, consulting chemist of the U.S. Treasury. Dr. Adams’ fingerprint in plant chemistry, especially cannabis chemistry, can be seen today. The “Adams Scale” measures the potency of cannabinoids, and it is still used in research settings. While there are dozens of potential medical applications from cannabis, Adams was among the first to observe cannabis’ analgesic effects.
Dr. Adams’ extensive research paved the way for the modern scientific research of cannabis. Beginning in 1916, he granted around 200 Ph.Ds to students and helped to redefine postdoctoral research. He passed away peacefully in 1971. Dr. Adams played a crucial role in the beginnings of cannabis research.