A short history of CBD

by Tim W. Shaw July 28, 2019

A Short History of CBD

CBD appeared in our high street shops, online stores and news headlines almost overnight. However, the momentum behind it had been building for many years. To understand the huge demand for it and where it came from, let’s look at the ups and downs, the prohibitions and permissions of its turbulent and fascinating history.

What does CBD stand for?

What does CBD stand forCBD refers to cannabidiol. It is one of over 100 cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant and is the second most abundant cannabinoid after tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). In the UK, and elsewhere, CBD has become the most talked-about food supplement in recent years.

It is known for boosting general health and wellness and for the ease with which it can be added to an ever-increasing range of food and drink. The cannabidiol extract used for CBD products is extracted from hemp, a variety of cannabis that is low in THC.

Set against a background of prohibition

Hemp has a long history of commercial use, as well as that of useful herb and food. The word ‘canvas’ has its origins in ‘cannabis’ due to the use of hemp fibres in sailcloth and rope.

However, despite its many applications in the past, including paper, oil and clothing, and its potential for the future, in building materials and biofuel, it has had a consistently bad reputation. In the last few centuries cannabis has been banned, in some form, throughout the world.

While hemp doesn’t have the same intoxicating qualities as cannabis, authorities often fail to see the difference, resulting in its farming being prohibited, restricted or controlled.

The isolation of phytocannabinoids

isolation of phytocannabinoids marijuana plantResearch into the components of cannabis has been conducted intermittently for over a century. Towards the end of the 19th century, cannabinol (CBN) was the first of the phytocannabinoids (plant cannabinoids) to be isolated (Cadena, 2019).

Much later in the 1930s, its structure was discovered by R.S. Cahn (Birnbaum & Leinow, 2017). This helped to build a picture of how cannabinoids work. However, there was still very little understanding of which molecules could be found in cannabis and what they did.

CBD was itself isolated from cannabis in 1940 by R. Adams and his colleagues in the U.S. However, the attention it received was short-lived. THC was extracted in 1942 and became famous as the most potent, abundant and active of the cannabinoids (Cadena, 2019).

In 1963, Israeli chemist Dr Raphael Mechoulam was successful in his efforts to describe the structure and chemistry of cannabidiol. Because of the attention on THC as the most ‘psychoactive’, CBD was cast aside as a ‘non-active precursor to THC’ (Birnbaum and Leinow, 2017).

Detailed research into cannabis and its components was tricky when it was actively prohibited in most countries. Not only were opportunities restricted but the overwhelming opinion of the pharmaceutical community was that the future of cannabis lay in ‘its isolated components, the cannabinoids and their synthetic derivatives’ (Institute of Medicine, 1999).

This meant that research often focused on the chemical building blocks of the plant and how they could be used elsewhere, rather than how they interacted naturally with each other and the mammalian brain.

Global CBD pioneers

These are the key global figures who have shaped the short history CBD.

Robert Sidney Cahn – discovered the structure of Cannabinol

Robert Sidney Cahn

R. S. Cahn was a British chemist for many years until his retirement in 1965. He specialised in stereochemistry and introduced the Cahn-Ingold Priority Rules which allow systematic naming of stereoisomers of molecules. He was a fellow of the Royal Institute of Chemistry and editor of the Journal of the Chemical Society from 1949 until 1963.

Roger Adams – isolated Cannabidiol from Cannabis

Roger Adams

R. Adams was an American organic chemist. He became a hugely influential scientist thanks to his work on finding the compositions of many natural substances such as complex vegetable oils and plant alkaloids. Not only did he isolate cannabidiol from Cannabis sativa he also showed its relationship to cannabinol (CBN) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Dr Raphael Mechoulam – grandfather of cannabis research

Dr Raphael MechoulamDr Mechoulam conducted extensive research into cannabis pharmacology over many years (Bialer, 2018). Much of the understanding we have today of how cannabinoids are structured and their effects stem from his work. He is a natural products chemist and focuses mostly on the chemistry of substances from plants.

In the sixties, he was surprised to find out that while morphine had been isolated from opium 150 years ago, and cocaine had been isolated 100 years ago, the chemistry of cannabis was not well known. To build a chemical basis for their research his team started looking at the chemistry of cannabinoids.

Professor Allyn Howlett and William Devane – discovered  receptor CB1

Professor Allyn Howlett William Devane

Professor Howlett and her then research student William Devane were based at St. Louis University Medical School, Missouri. Their research into cannabinoids allowed them to understand how they interact with the body. Professor Howlett’s current work continues to focus on how some drugs can target specific neurons.

Lumír Ondřej Hanuš – isolated anandamine

Lumír Ondřej Hanuš

In 1992, Dr Hanuš and William Devane (now a molecular pharmacologist) successfully isolated and described the structure of the first endogenous cannabinoid neurotransmitter ever discovered: anandamide. Dr Hanuš continues being an active researcher of medicinal cannabis and an advocate of its use as "one of the safest known medications" (iDNES.cz, 2010).

The discovery of the Endocannabinoid System

While research into cannabis and its components continued through the following decades it wasn’t until the late eighties that the next clue to CBD’s importance was uncovered. In 1988, during a government-funded study, Allyn Howlett and William Devane discovered receptor sites located in the mammalian brain that interact with substances found in cannabis (Moore, 2018).

Endocannabinoid System receptors cb1 cb2This receptor became known as CB1. Later, CB2 receptors were discovered in the peripheral nervous system. In 1992, Lumír Ondřej Hanuš and William Anthony Devane discovered anandamide, the first "human cannabinoid", an endogenous cannabinoid neurotransmitter. It acts as a chemical signal and interacts with CB1 receptors (DeAngelo, 2015).

This combination of receptors and human cannabinoids (endocannabinoids) became known as the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Once it was discovered, its function was explored in depth. The ECS is used as a signalling system for the processes involved in homeostasis This is the mechanism which maintains healthy balances in your body (Moore, 2018).

Anandamide is also known as the ‘bliss molecule’ and is responsible for the ‘runner’s high’ that follows vigorous exercise. While it is found in the human body is also present in chocolate! Later another signalling molecule was discovered and was name 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Both endocannabinoids interact in different ways and provide different functions.

A new perception of Cannabidiol

New perception of Cannabidiol couple in embraceAs the understanding of the ECS grew, governments supported more research, and more cannabinoids were discovered. The next challenge was to be how these jigsaw pieces all fitted together.

Raphael Mechoulam led the next phase of discoveries by uncovering more about the structure of individual cannabinoids. He was instrumental in bring CBD into the public eye and building its global reputation.

At the start of the 21st century, cannabidiol grew in popularity. Larger numbers of people began to recognise its effect on general health and well-being. In 2009, labs finally began testing strains of cannabis to see how much CBD was contained in each one (Birnbaum & Leinow, 2017).

Varieties that contained more than 4% CBD, by dry weight, became known as ‘CBD rich’. This made it easier for people to find and use strains they knew were high in CBD. Now that people could identify when they had used it, stories of its general effects as a supplement began to circulate.

How CBD interacts with the Endocannabinoid System

CBD finally ascended to its current rock star status when pharmacologists got a better understanding of how it interacts with the endocannabinoid system. CBD’s molecular structure gives it many positive attributes with your body but its role in boosting the ECS is by far the most fascinating.

Many cannabinoids, THC included, bind directly with either the CB1 or CB2 receptors. CBD is different because it doesn’t. Instead, CBD works to promote your body’s own endogenous cannabinoid neurotransmitter, anandamide (Kumar & Zou, 2018).

AnandamideAnandamide interacts with your cannabinoid receptors and allows your body to respond quickly and efficiently to imbalances in your body. This improved ability to restore balance is what is responsible for the general health benefits of CBD. Because anandamide is usually produced by our bodies to be used immediately, it has a short life. Once it has completed its task it’s broken down into its component parts. This breakdown is started by enzymes.

CBD prevents these enzymes from starting the breakdown of anandamide allowing the levels to build up in your body. Higher levels of anandamide have been found to allow your body to improve its own general wellbeing. CBD gives your body the tools it needs to provide its own support (Kumar & Zou, 2018).

CBD: a high-quality food supplement or a scam?

CBD oil lab certificateUnfortunately, despite CBD’s improving reputation and its impact as a food supplement, there is no standardised regulation of the industry. In February Members of the European Parliament recommended that cannabis-related products should be subject to coordinated policy across the European Union.

Currently, the UK response to CBD products and the restriction of hemp farming is based on rules and regulations that are decades old.

As a result, the market was wide open to be exploited by unscrupulous ‘snake oil salesmen’ looking to make a quick buck. Many poor-quality products became available, some containing very little CBD, some with none and some containing other substances such as alcohol, toxins and heavy metals.

With these inferior products widely available customers who were trying CBD for the first time were unsure of what to expect. The bad experience of those customers duped into buying the ‘snake oil’ had a huge impact on its reputation.

Recently, the Centre for Medical Cannabis bought 30 oils from market-leading brands and had them lab tested at PhytoVista. 62% of the sample group did not match the claims on the label.

While this is damaging for the industry it also highlights that genuine products are available, and they are in demand. There are a growing number of retailers and suppliers who follow the guidelines set out by the Cannabis Trades Association, Cannapro or the British Hemp Association. These industry leaders, including for the Ageless, aim to create their own form of regulation by creating open and honest relationships with customers.

Savvy consumers have found a way to recognise high standards by conducting their own research before a purchase. They look out for links to official organisations like the CTA and other industry associations, read reviews and opinions from other customers and check the third-party certificates of analysis. These are reports of tests that have been carried out by an independent lab on every batch of oil. They provide an independent assurance that you are getting what you pay for.

Despite the struggles faced by the industry, the popularity of CBD has fuelled an industry that is growing at nearly exponential rates. In 2017 the Cannabis Trades Association estimated the number of CBD users to have doubled from 125,000 to 250,000 over one year. Now, surveys commissioned by the Centre for Medical Cannabis and carried out by YouGov and Dynata indicate that the UK market consists of 4-6 million people.

Circling back to the whole-plant and full-spectrum extracts

Cannabis plantThe real beauty of this story is that it is cyclical. It starts with the separation of the cannabinoids as they are isolated. Plans were made to synthesise them into substances with new properties.

However, CBD could not be truly separated from its plant origins. Despite its use in pure form when it began to be used as a food supplement, studies soon showed that it was much more effective when used alongside other cannabinoids and plant substances. When taken with small amounts of the other natural chemicals found in cannabis, they influence how it interacts with the ECS. This gives a better and wider-ranging effect (Russo, 2019).

Now the best oils and products come with a full range of cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids. What began with the breakup of nature’s gift ended with it being reformed.

The future of CBD oil

The history of CBD is filled with misunderstanding and prohibition. However, thanks to those who kept researching and providing the public with facts, we can now make up our own mind.

As hundreds of new studies have been commissioned, we are set to know more about CBD than ever before. As we gain a better understanding of CBD it is bound to affect how it is viewed and how it can be used. Will further research in medical cannabis turn CBD into medicine and lose its food supplement status?

Currently, British CBD manufacturers rely on hemp imported from other countries. As the revenue from the industry grows, will effective regulation develop quickly enough for UK industry sectors to reap the benefits? Will regulators make it easier or more difficult to grow, extract and retail CBD?

We know a great deal about this beneficial molecule, but it still has many secrets that could well be unlocked in our lifetime. Once they are revealed, we can only hope that as a nation we will proceed with open minds and not with the fear that leads back to prohibition.

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References for "A Short History of CBD"

Bialer, M. (August, 2018). Raphael Mechoulam and the history of cannabis research. Retrieved from https://www.ilae.org/journals/epigraph/epigraph-vol-21-issue-1-winter-2019/raphael-mechoulam-and-the-history-of-cannabis-research 
Blkov, V. (2010, June 07). Konop. Retrieved July 28, 2019, from https://www.idnes.cz/zpravy/archiv/konopi-je-jednim-z-nejbezpecnejsich-znamych-leciv-rika-v-izraeli-pusobici-profesor-lumir-hanus.A100505_091910_kavarna_chu
Birnbaum, J. & Leinow, L. (2017). CBD. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.
Cadena, A. (March 8, 2019). The History of CBD: A Brief Overview. Retrieved from https://www.labroots.com/trending/cannabis-sciences/8456/endocannabinoid-system-discovered
DeAngelo, S. (2015). The Cannabis Manifesto. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.
Kumar, U. & Zou, S. (March 19, 2018). Cannabinoid Receptors and the Endocannabinoid System: Signaling and Function in the Central Nervous System. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5877694/
Lee, M. (2012). Smoke Signals. New York, NY: Scribner.
Moore, M. (April 5, 2018). How the Endocannabinoid System was Discovered. Retrieved from https://www.labroots.com/trending/cannabis-sciences/8456/endocannabinoid-system-discovered
Pertwee, R. (January 9, 2006). Cannabinoid Pharmacology: The first 66 years. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1760722/
Pyne, L. (April 12, 2019). The History of CBD. Retrieved from https://www.cbdcentral.com/the-history-of-cbd/
Russo, E. (January, 2019). The Case for the Entourage Effect and Conventional Breeding of Clinical Cannabis: No “Strain,” No Gain. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6334252/

Tim W. Shaw
Tim W. Shaw


Tim W. Shaw writes extensively about CBD oil, cannabis and other groundbreaking food supplements. He and his wife share their home with two daughters and a lifetime’s collection of books.

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