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Roger Adams: Idealistic Unsung Hero of Cannabis Science

Posted on December 17th, 2018 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , , , .
Roger Adams

The name most associated with cannabis science in the minds of aficionados is that of Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam—who is credited with first isolating and identifying THC. But given the current craze for CBD, there is another figure who should receive his due. The American chemist Roger Adams is the man who first isolated cannabidiol. And, by some accounts, he even has a claim to being the one who first identified its pyschoactive cousin THC.

In addition to this, he played a little-recognized role in the great world political upheavals of his time, as he grappled with the role of science—and its misuses—in war and totalitarianism.

Adams was a true Boston blue-blood, a direct descendant of President John Adams. The precocious scion entered Harvard in 1905 at the age of 16. In 1913, he travelled on a fellowship to Germany, then the world leader in chemistry, and studied at Berlin's prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. He returned to the US to take a post at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana just as World War I was breaking out. For the first but not the last time, events on the world stage had an impact on his life, career and research.

In 1917, he was called to Washington DC to take a position with the National Research Council and its associated Chemical Warfare Service. Germany was then notoriously using poison gas in the trench warfare of Europe. Adams was involved in studying this, with an eye toward developing prophylactics to gas attacks—and potentially deterrents, in the capacity to retaliate in kind. The expertise he had gained from German instruction was now being put to use for the war effort against Germany.

Even after the war, Adams would remain close to the then-congealing national security establishment. And this would again have an impact on what would be his life's most important scientific work.

In 1939—just two years after marijuana was made illegal—he received a Treasury Department license to work with cannabis sativa oil at his lab in Champaign-Urbana, and presented a paper to the National Academy of Science on "The Chemistry of Marihuana."

The next world war also broke out that year, although the US would not become a belligerent until after the Pearl Harbor attack of December 1941. The national security establishment was clearly taking a keen interest in Adams' work. In 1942, the newly formed Office of Strategic Services, the wartime predecessor of the CIA, would draw on Adams' research in its quest for a "truth serum." Cannabis was used on German POWs, and administered to the scientists working on the Manhattan Project—the super-secret mission to develop the atomic bomb.

But at the same time, the newly illegal status of cannabis made this controversial stuff. The profile of Adams in the book No Boundaries: University of Illinois Vignettes by Lillian Hoddeson relates the amusing anecdote of how the esteemed chemist was publicly dressed down by Narcotics Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger, the anti-pot zealot who was the crusading figure behind the "reefer madness" of this era.

Adams' research had actually been overseen by Anslinger's Federal Bureau of Narcotics. But he was apparently perceived as having a bit too much enthusiasm for his work. After Adams reportedly let slip in mixed company about the "pleasant effects of the use of this drug," he was scolded by Anslinger. The commissioner warned in a report on the chemist that too many young people already wanted to "experience the effects" of marijuana. "In my opinion, this drug is bad for human consumption and should be painted so," Anslinger lectured.

When Adams was again called to Washington to assist the war effort, he would run up against another titan of domestic paranoia. This was J. Edgar Hoover, the boss of the FBI, which was called in to conduct a background check on Adams upon his 1940 appointment to the National Defense Research Committee. The Office of Naval Intelligence blocked Adams' rise to the NDRC for several months on the probable intervention of Hoover, who suspected him of being a communist sympathizer. This baseless fantasy was apparently due to Adams' membership in the Lincoln's Birthday Committee for Democracy and Intellectual Freedom, a body of academics opposed to Nazi pseudo-science and "race" theories. So Adams was what would later be called a "premature anti-fascist."

With the US and USSR allied in World War II, anti-communism was (for a while) de-emphasized, and Adams eventually got his security clearance. In 1942 he started the Illinois chapter of Russian War Relief, an organization established to support Uncle Sam's wartime ally.

The post-war era saw the pinnacle of Adams' embrace by the foreign policy establishment. In 1945 he returned to Germany as an advisor to Gen. Lucius Clay, administrator of the US occupation there. His special mission was to oversee the reconstitution and de-Nazification of Germany's scientific establishment. In 1947, he would be sent to US-occupied Japan, with a similar mission.

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

From a scientific standpoint, Adams' most important work was his cannabis research in the early 1940s. In this period, he published 27 studies on cannabis in the American Journal of Chemistry, being the first to identify and synthesize cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN). In 1942, he won a patent for his method of isolating CBD. And, by some accounts, he was also the first to identify tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

It was Raphael Mechoulam at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who is generally credited with first isolating THC in 1964—and who certainly gave the compound its name. But Adams produced THC analogs in his laboratory, and is said to have "inferred" the existence of the molecule in the cannabis plant. Mechoulam was able to confirm what Adams had inferred with the use of newly developed nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

Adams also developed the "Adams Scale" to measure the effects of cannabinoids on the human organism—still in use by researchers today. Although CBD's multifarious applications would only become apparent decades later, Adams was already noting its analgesic effects.

At a minimum, Adams' work with "red oil" derived from Minnesota wild hemp back in the '40s is what made possible Mechoulam's later work with confiscated Lebanese hashish.

And Adams repeatedly risked his career and position both for his cannabis research and his political ideals, standing up to the forces of intolerance in a very paranoid age.


This story first ran Dec. 4 in Freedom Leaf

Image: Univeristy of Illinois

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