CBD has changed the way we see cannabis

by Tom Russell July 05, 2019

CBD has Changed the Way We See Cannabis

For many years the prohibition of cannabis was justified through its alleged links to violence, addiction and poor mental health. Media portrayals often missed out mentions of creativity, inspiration and healing, only highlighting its influence as criminal, dirty and immoral.

CBD Store BillboardWhen Cannabidiol (CBD) became legal and UK high street stores started stocking it in January 2018, it created an unexpected challenge for this perception. At the same time, the Cannabis Trades Association reported an increase in UK CBD users doubling from 125,000 to 250,000 in one year.

The acceptance of CBD onto the high street soon led to its appearance in other stores, chemists and even doctors' surgeries. Seeing the seven-pointed leaf proudly displayed in such wholesome environments began to offer an alternative to some of the negative associations.

The perception of medical cannabis and CBD have always been linked and the changing approaches to each have influenced the views we hold today. To understand the events that underpin our own approach and how they might change in the future, let’s look at how the fortunes of CBD and cannabis have been entwined for centuries.

CBD vs cannabis

The plant that we know as cannabis grows flowers which contain natural psychoactive chemicals and are often used for the high they can produce. This high comes from a natural chemical found in most parts of the plant called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC and cannabidiol (CBD) are both cannabinoids found in all varieties of cannabis.

Hemp is a variety of the cannabis genus with different properties and characteristics. Genus means a class of plants that are closely related. Hemp contains less than 0.2% THC and higher amounts of Cannabidiol. High-quality hemp extract is often called full-spectrum CBD extract, which has naturally low amounts of THC and contains other beneficial, non-psychoactive ingredients; together they can produce the entourage effect.

Part 1: The 20th Century

Cannabis and hemp at the start of the 20th Century

Since its origin in Asia, cannabis has a long history of medical and spiritual use. It has been used to relieve toothache and even to dull labour pains. Hemp also had many uses including rope, fabric, building material and sail canvas.

However, both variants have faced nearly two centuries of prohibition. In 1800 Napoleon banned his troops from smoking cannabis during their occupation of Egypt. Since then many countries have enforced some form of prohibition for many different reasons.

Between 1535, when Henry VIII declared that all landowners must sow ¼ of an acre of hemp or face a fine, and 1920, hemp accounted for 80% of the UK’s textile production. While hemp grows quickly and in different environments it is labour intensive to farm and harvest. This led to imported cotton becoming the preferred crop and it was protected at all costs by those who had money invested in cotton harvests.

Jazz and cannabisAs early as 1910 the use of ‘reefer’ (cannabis) was reported in New Orleans Jazz clubs and was linked to the vibrant development of the jazz scene. It was seen as fuel to the impassioned frenetic energy of the jazz musicians who brought halls full of people to their feet to dance through the joys, pains and segregations of the time.

While the link between cannabis and Jazz often breathed life into downtrodden communities, it also led to the prohibition of marijuana in America. To the American government and big business cannabis would always appear as something different, something strange, something to be feared. When prohibition occurred the word ‘marijuana’ was used. It is often suggested that even this choice of using a word of Mexican origin was designed to create associations of something un-American and something unwelcome.

It wasn’t just America that wanted to halt the use of the cannabis plant because in 1924 the second International Opiates Conference declared cannabis as a narcotic and that it should be subject to international controls. In the UK the 1925 dangerous drugs act soon followed and categorised all cannabis, including hemp, as illegal.

Louis Armstrong, Jack Kerouac and the growth of post-war counterculture

The association between Jazz and cannabis continued throughout the first half of the century and in 1930 Louis Armstrong was arrested in Los Angeles for cannabis possession. However, Jazz culture had lit a spark that would inspire young people all over the world to throw off the repression created by WWII and the 1940s saw the rise of the Beat Generation.

Starting in America, this movement had a lasting impact on a global youth counterculture. The beat generation is most recognisable for the works of Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac but went on to include the work of hundreds of writers and poets, men and women.

Jack KerouacWhile the beat generation was all about the written and spoken word it was musical in its style. It often involved long passages produced as a stream of consciousness that was written in one long sitting with minimal editing. The flow, rhythm and meter of the words closely mimicked that of a jazz musician wailing out their groove.

While the use of cannabis hit a creative high so did that of hemp. In the approach to WWII and throughout, it became known again as a crucial crop and it was claimed to have over 25,000 historical uses including ink, paint, paper, canvas, food, bank notes and building materials.

Its use became legal in the UK and US and it could be produced in the US with the correct license. There was even a film produced to encourage people to grow hemp. At the end of the war, there were those who feared its impact on other traditional markets, and it was again prohibited. In the following years, hemp continued to be confused with cannabis and remained underused and under-researched.

Hippies and the art of the endocannabinoid system (ECS)

During the fifties and sixties, the response to cannabis possession in the UK was described as more independent and relaxed than the rest of the world. However, in 1965 parliament passed the new Dangerous Drugs Act which made it illegal to grow cannabis or allow it to be smoked in your home.

hippies at hyde park londonShortly after, an advert in the Times declared ‘the laws against marijuana are immoral in principle and unworkable in practice’. 3,000 people, referred to as ‘hippies’ by the media, congregated in Hyde Park, London to hold a mass ‘smoke in’. While many people supported legalisation, the following decades saw increasing political opposition.

Hemp was still closely associated with cannabis and it was again officially prohibited in the USA in 1971 when President Nixon began the war on drugs. In 1990 the first indication that human and cannabis interaction had more significance with the discovery of THC receptors in the human brain. The first human cannabinoid (endocannabinoid), anandamide was discovered later in 1992.

While there was still little understanding of how cannabinoids interact with our nervous system it was clear that there was more to discover. These were important steps in the knowledge that revealed that there could be positive uses for cannabinoids. In 1993, the UK legalised hemp strains containing less than 0.2% THC.

The potential for hemp in industry has thousands of years of history behind it and potential for the future. Some of its uses in the present day are composite board, brake pads, clutch pads, plastic, fuel and biodiesel.

Even with such possibilities, its links to cannabis have kept it under-used and often illegal. However, in recent years the growth of hemp sourced CBD products has begun to wear away at the negative perceptions of both cannabis and hemp.

Part 2: Recent events allow CBD to change our approach to cannabis

The 20th century was one of prohibition and a purposefully misdirected view of both hemp and cannabis. In the UK, this continued into the early 21st century but eventually global and local events put them back onto politician’s agendas.

A growing number of studies linked cannabis to medical benefits leading over thirty countries, including Australia and Germany, to legalise its medical use. Canada, Uruguay and ten US states have legalised recreational use as well. This has opened the global debate and set the scene for a series of events that would prove to be instrumental in altering our perceptions in the UK of CBD and cannabis:

Billy Caldwell’s cannabis oil is confiscated at Heathrow airport

Billy CaldwellAs CBD products appeared in more high street shops the story of Billy Caldwell was brought to the nation’s attention. Twelve-year-old Billy suffered from regular epileptic seizures which his mother had been successfully treating with Tilray cannabis oil in Canada.

Medical cannabis treatment had successfully given him 300 seizure-free days until the oil was confiscated by UK customs when he arrived in Heathrow. Unlike CBD oils available as food supplements in the UK, Tilray cannabis oil has a higher level of THC.

As Billy’s mother fought for Billy to receive the cannabis-based treatment in the UK, children and their families suffering from similar conditions began to tell their own stories. Their cases were brought to parliament by MPs who shared stories from their constituencies and further afield, detailing the frustrations cancer sufferers and epilepsy patients who would benefit from cannabis treatment.

Billy’s mother, Ms Caldwell, joined by other parents were soon campaigning on behalf of all who would benefit from treatment, “I will also ask them to implement a review of how the government… can make cannabis-based medication available to all patients who urgently require it”.

“Heart-breaking cases of sick children” prompt government action on medical cannabis

Carly BartonAs Billy began to suffer seizures again through lack of cannabis medication, the home office was able to make short courses of medical cannabis available on an individual basis. This wasn’t enough for the growing number of family’s presenting their cases. In November 2018 Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced the legalisation of cannabis for medical use.

He said, “Having been moved by heartbreaking cases involving sick children, it was important to me that we took swift action to help those who can benefit from medicinal cannabis”. Prescriptions can be given by specialist doctors as a last resort when no other treatment is effective.

Carly Barton was among the first to receive a prescription, however, because the prescriptions are not filled by the NHS, she struggled to afford the price tag. A two months’ supply can cost up to £2500 and there are often long delays in availability. Now, she risks prosecution by openly breaking the law to grow her own supply.

Celebrities join the campaign and talk about their own struggles

Following November’s legalisation, public interest in medical cannabis continued prompting several celebrities to open up about their experiences. Both cannabis and CBD has gained a following among celebrities.

Jenny Powell on LorraineTelevision presenter Jenny Powell appeared on Lorraine to talk about her experiences using CBD oil. Following a suggestion from her husband she researched CBD and began to take it regularly.

Globally, several famous faces have discussed their use of CBD and cannabis: Whoopi Goldberg has her own cannabis-based brand; Morgan Freeman uses CBD oil regularly and Patrick Stewart uses CBD balm.

The changing landscape in the ongoing debate

High profile cases of medical cannabis treatment and the availability of CBD oil in the high street have significantly changed the public profile of cannabis and had an impact on the debate surrounding its legalisation. The images associated with cannabis are no longer of smoke and deprivation but of hope and effective treatment.

Centuries of prohibition and politics kept a shadow over cannabis, and this was extended to hemp because of misinformation and lack of knowledge. As recent events have slowly begun to address our perception and understanding of both plants it has been the presence of CBD in our lives and media that has begun to turn the tide for cannabis and open up the debate again in the UK.

Conclusion on CBD oil and our perception of cannabis

Studies around the benefits of cannabis have been persuasive and groundbreaking. However, when hemp is shown in a positive light in your local chemist and cannabis leaf displays are used to highlight special offers on CBD capsules the changes are undeniable.

The difference in our view of cannabis began with national events, celebrities on TV and crises in airports but it has now come home to our own streets, houses and families. It is present in conversations in the doctors waiting room, in chats with your neighbour and in our homes.

CBD has bridged the gap between news on our television screens and newspaper articles and our own lives. Now it’s here, it is harder to think of cannabis as no more than an illegal immoral drug when you’re sat at dinner watching your 83-year-old great aunt add a few drops of CBD oil to her gravy.

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Perception of cannabis

Tom Russell
Tom Russell


Tom Russell writes extensively about CBD oil 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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