The Evolution of Our Understanding: A Brief History of CBD

by Jeffrey Han on May 28, 2019



Not long ago, few people had even heard of CBD, one of the many non-psychoactive components of cannabis. In a seemingly short period of time, CBD has evolved from a relatively unknown plant-based cannabinoid to a sought-after component within a flourishing market.

While CBD may seem like a recent discovery to the casual observer, the apparent spike in the use of CBD has been brewing for decades. With a significant amount of research to support the therapeutic potential, the use and acceptance of CBD products have been instrumental in changing public perception of cannabis. Here's a brief look at the intriguing history of this non-psychoactive cannabinoid.  


Cannabis Use Throughout the Ages

Cannabis is believed to be one of the first domesticated crops. Some cannabis plants were bred for food and textiles (hemp), while others were cultivated for religious ceremonies and medicinal purposes (marijuana). While our ancient ancestors may not have understood why cannabis alleviated the symptoms of so many seemingly unrelated conditions, they passed on their knowledge throughout the ages based on experimentation and observation.

It wasn't until the late 1830s that researchers sought to understand the therapeutic effects of cannabis. While the topic was controversial at the time, Irish physician and researcher William B O' Shaughnessy is credited as the  "modern father of cannabis therapeutics." Shaughnessy's lectures spread awareness about the many benefits of cannabis throughout Europe and North America.


Identifying the Individual Components of Cannabis

Nearly 100 years later, researchers began identifying the individual plant elements in cannabis.  British researcher Robert S Cahn identified part of the structure of cannabinol (CBN) in 1940. Later that same decade, American chemist Roger Adams isolated cannabidiol (CBD). Although CBN and CBD had been identified, the significance of these discoveries was not clear to the scientific community of that time.

In 1963, nearly two decades after CBD had been isolated, Israeli researcher Dr Ralph Mechoulam identified the chemical composition of CBD. A short time later, he also identified the phytocannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). It was Mechoulam who revealed that THC causes the psychoactive effects of cannabis, while CBD does not cause intoxication.


The Medical Community Was Not Impressed

In the early 1980s, Dr Mechoulam conducted a study on the use of CBD for the treatment of epilepsy. A group of eight test subjects was given a daily dose of CBD. During the four months of investigation, half of the test subjects stopped having seizures, and the rest reported a significant reduction in seizure activity. While a significant, encouraging discovery, Mechaulam soon discovered that within the medical community, "no one cared," at least not at that time. Since cannabis use was prohibited, many considered the discovery somewhat irrelevant.     


The Discovery of the Regulatory System That Responds to Cannabis

Also during the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan allocated tens of millions of dollars to verify the claim that marijuana causes brain damage. Once researchers determined that THC does not cause brain damage, the president funded additional studies. These government-funded studies led to the discovery of the first of two endocannabinoid receptors in 1988, and the discovery of a previously undetected regulatory system just a few years later.


The Many Functions of a Newly Discovered Regulatory System

The discovery of the receptors of the endocannabinoid system led to another fascinating discovery; two naturally occurring cannabinoids called anandamide, and 2-arachidonoylglycerol(2-AG) produced in the body.  

Functioning as neurotransmitters, researchers determined these internally produced cannabinoids to be part of a complex network of internal messengers and receptors. Investigators named this system the endocannabinoid system after the plant species that led to its discovery.

Though research into the functions of the endocannabinoid system is ongoing, researchers believe the purpose of the endocannabinoid system is to regulate homeostasis, the internal balance that all living organisms need to maintain for survival. Just a few of the numerous functions regulated by this fascinating system include:

  • Immune system function
  • Pain perception and inflammation
  • Moods and emotions
  • Thermoregulation and metabolism
  • Learning and memory
  • Neuroprotection and muscle movement
  • Sleep cycle regulation
  • Reproductive processes
  • Stress responses
  • Digestive processes


Further investigations confirmed that CBD mimics the effects of 2-Ag and anandamide, influencing the receptors of the endocannabinoid system. This was a significant observation. The interaction with endocannabinoid receptors suggests that our bodies are wired to respond to the cannabinoids in cannabis. Many researchers today believe endocannabinoid deficiencies cause illness and disease. 


CBD in the National Spotlight  

Although researchers had identified the significance of CBD, the cannabinoid was still not commonly brought up in conversation. It wasn't until the story of a young girl named Charlotte gained national attention that people started taking notice.

By the age of four, Charlotte Figi was having 300 seizures per week because of a rare form of epilepsy called Dravet Syndrome. Conventional medications did not control her seizures, and the child lost her ability to walk, talk, and eat. Charlotte's parents had few options.After learning of another child with the same condition being successfully treated with CBD, Charlotte's parents applied for a medical marijuana card on her behalf, which was eventually approved.

Charlotte's mom, Paige, found a dispensary that had a small amount of CBD-rich marijuana that was low in THC, a combination that would not cause intoxication. After a successful trial, a week without seizures, Charlottes low-THC marijuana supply was running low.

That's when Charlotte's mom contacted dispensary owners, the Stanley brothers. The Stanley brothers had successfully cultivated a strain of marijuana that was also high in CBD and low in THC. That strain is known today as Charlotte's Web. Charlotte can now walk, talk, play, and averages only 2-3 seizures per month. Many familiar with the story were intrigued by the impressive results.     


CBD Seems to Be Destigmatizing Cannabis 

Today, even people who once opposed cannabis use are turning to CBD for its significant health and wellness potential. Research shows that CBD has anxiolytic, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic, and anti-emetic properties due to its interaction with the endocannabinoid system. Just a few of the many reported reasons people are using CBD include:

  • Alleviating pain and inflammation
  • Minimizing the symptoms of anxiety
  • Reducing the symptoms of depression
  • Reducing or delaying the symptoms of Alzheimer's and dementia
  • Reducing the frequency or severity of Migraine
  • Minimizing the symptoms of fibromyalgia


As the awareness of CBD increases, more people are receptive to using cannabis-sourced products than ever before. While most of the CBD products available to the general population are derived from industrial hemp, dispensaries are finding the demand for high CBD/ Low THC marijuana strains increasing.


The Thriving CBD Industry

The sale of products containing CBD has increased by more than 80 percent in the past year. Almost half of those using CBD learned about the health and wellness potential from family or friends, with less than 10 percent learning about CBD through advertising. By 2023, CBD is projected to be a $22.7 billion industry.

Some credit the surge in popularity to the legalization of industrial hemp with the 2018 Farm Bill. Others claim the interest in CBD began with the increase in research that supports the numerous claims of CBD enthusiasts.

As the popularity of CBD increases, so do the number of companies wanting to profit from public enthusiasm. Large corporations, including Coca Cola and the parent company of Nabisco, are looking into creating their own line of CBD-infused products. Several retailers are already selling CBD, including:


  • Walgreens – offering topical products in select states
  • Unilever – Schmidt's Naturals to release a line of CBD infused deodorants
  • CVS Pharmacy- announced it will be carrying CBD products in select states
  • Barney's – announced a luxury cannabis lifestyle shop


CBD is Available in Many Forms

CBD is just one of nearly 120 potentially beneficial cannabinoids found in cannabis. There are two potential sources of CBD, marijuana and hemp. To be classified as industrial hemp, a cannabis plant must contain 0.3 percent THC or less, trace amounts of THC that will not cause intoxication.

Hemp CBD is legal in all 50 states. The legality of marijuana-sourced CBD varies by state for recreational or medical purposes. Whether sourced from hemp or marijuana, CBD can be taken orally, vaped, smoked, applied topically, or added to foods and beverages. Enthusiastic customers are purchasing CBD online, in vape shops, specialty shops, and dispensaries.

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