The American chemist Roger Adams isolated the CBD 75 years ago

In 1942, Roger Adams (left) obtained a patent for his method of isolating CBD and was the first researcher to identify THC.

This scientist has greatly contributed to the study of cannabis and the discovery of its active ingredients

The name most associated with the science of cannabis is usually the Israeli chemist Raphael Mechoulam. It is credited with the isolation and identification of THC. But due to the current craze for CBD, another name deserves to be remembered, that of the American chemist Roger Adams, who isolated cannabidiol first. Additionally, according to some accounts, he was the first to identify his psychoactive cousin, THC.

Roger Adams in his laboratory
Roger Adams in his laboratory

Adams is also known for his commitment to the role of science and its misuses in war and totalitarianism, especially during the great political upheavals of the early twentieth century.

A direct descendant of US President John Adams, he entered Harvard early in 1905 at the age of 16. In 1913, he traveled to Germany, a world leader in chemistry at the time, and studied at the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. He returned to the United States to take a post at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign just as World War I broke out. For the first time, but not the last, events on the world stage impacted his life, career and research.

In 1917, Adams held a post with the National Research Council of Canada in Washington, DC and its associated Chemical Warfare Service. Germany was then notoriously using poison gas in European trench warfare. Adams researched the issue with the goal of developing prophylactics against gas attacks - and possibly retaliatory deterrents. Ironically, the expertise he had acquired in Germany was now being put to good use in the war effort against Germany. Even after the war, Adams remained close to the emerging national security establishment at the time, which also impacted what was to be the most important scientific work of his life.

Raphael Mechoulam, CBD, Roger Adams

Adams starts studying cannabis

In 1939, just two years after the ban on marijuana by Congress, Adams received a license from the Treasury Department to work on cannabis oil in his laboratory at Urbana-Champaign and presented an article to the National Academy of science on "The Chemistry of Marijuana".

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World War II also broke out that year, although the United States did not intervene until after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. National security was very interested in Adams' work. In 1942, the new Office of Strategic Services, the wartime predecessor of the CIA, drew on Adams' research in their quest for a "truth serum." Cannabis was administered to American soldiers as well as to scientists working on the Manhattan Project (top secret project to develop the atomic bomb) but gave negligible results.

The newly illegal status of marijuana had made this research controversial. In his portrayal of Adams in No Boundaries: University of Illinois Vignettes (2004), Ronald Doel recounts how the famous chemist was publicly accused by Harry J. Anslinger, the staunch anti-cannabis activist.

As Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Anslinger was the country's first anti-drug "czar". And since Adams' research was overseen by the office, Anslinger felt Adams was showing a little too much enthusiasm for his work. After Adams admitted to several people the "pleasurable effects of using this drug," Anslinger publicly berated him. "In my opinion, this drug is bad for human consumption and should be described as such," he said.

In 1940 Adams was appointed to the National Defense Research Committee to assist in the war effort, but FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover suspected him of being a Communist sympathizer and blocked his appointment for several months in because of his membership in the Lincoln Anniversary Committee for Democracy and Intellectual Freedom, a group of academics opposed to the pseudoscience and “racial” theories of the Nazis. Adams was what would later be called an "early antifascist."

With the United States and the USSR being allies during World War II, anti-communism was (for a time) relegated to the background and Adams eventually got its permission. In 1942, he founded the Illinois section of Russian War Relief, an organization created to support the Soviet ally during the war.

Adams synthesizes the CBD and then identifies the THC

From a scientific standpoint, Adams' most important work was his cannabis research in the early 1940s when he identified and synthesized cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN). In 1942, he obtained a patent for his method of isolating CBD. Adams was also the first researcher to identify tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and published 27 studies on cannabis in the American Journal of Chemistry.

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But Adams never isolated THC directly from the plant; instead, he synthesized it in the lab by altering the molecular structure of other cannabinoids, primarily CBD. Adams apparently sought to isolate the psychoactive cannabinoid; he knew it must exist and had a good idea of ​​its molecular makeup, but never identified it in the plant, apparently because the technology later used by Mechoulam did not exist in the 1940s.

While Mechoulam is widely recognized as the one who isolated THC at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1964 and gave the compound his name, Adams produced molecules similar to THC in his lab some 20 years earlier and is said to have " deduces ”the existence of the molecule in the cannabis plant. Mechoulam confirmed Adams' discovery using a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer.

According to, “The isolation of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol as the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis was first carried out by Wollner, Levine and Lowe in 1942. This followed the work of Roger Adams. Since then, (THC) has become the most studied cannabinoid. "

In 1944, “The La Guardia Report on the Marihuana Problem” paid tribute to Adams' work: “We are indebted to Dr. Roger Adams of the University of Illinois and to Dr. HJ Wollner, consultant chemist for the US Treasury, who provided us with some of the active ingredients in marijuana used in the study. "

The postwar period saw the height of Adams 'adherence to the authorities' foreign policy. In 1945 he returned to Germany as an adviser to General Lucius Clay, administrator of the American presence. Adams's special mission was to oversee the reconstitution and denazification of the German scientific community. In 1947, he was sent to occupied Japan by the United States on a similar mission.

Adams then returned to Illinois, where he remained until his death in 1971. In 1958, the year following his retirement, the American Chemical Society established the prestigious Roger Adams Award in honor of his work. .

He also developed the Adams scale to measure the potency of cannabinoids; it is still used by researchers today. Although the multiple applications of CBD did not appear until decades later, Adams noted its pain relieving effects as early as the 40s.

Roger Adams has repeatedly risked his career and position to defend cannabis research and his political views, resisting intolerance in a time particularly prone to paranoia.

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