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CBD Oil History: How CBD Oil Got to Where it is Today

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Today, cannabidiol (CBD) is practically a household name — but it wasn’t always that way. For decades, misinformation on the difference between THC and CBD stopped consumers and legislators alike from discovering its many benefits. Now, CBD is the focus of a multi-million-dollar industry, attracting significant interest from big-name corporations and the general public.

According to market analysts, CBD’s prospects are brighter than ever. But to truly understand CBD’s future, the best place to start is in its past.

CBD Oil History

The 1900s-1980s: First Discovery & Early Years

Although the discovery of cannabidiol (CBD) occurred less than a century ago, cannabis has been used and studied extensively for hundreds of years.

In the early 19th century, researchers like William Brooke O’Shaughnessy — an Irish physician — were early proponents of cannabis’s therapeutic applications and success in treating a variety of conditions with cannabis concoctions. However, a century would pass before researchers would begin studying CBD facts exclusively.

In 1940, an American chemist named Roger Adams successfully isolated and identified CBD, contextualizing it as a separate cannabinoid from CBN (cannabinol) and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). Adams also most likely discovered that cannabis and hemp plants don’t naturally produce their cannabidiol content. Instead, hemp and cannabis create the highly-abundant and extremely volatile cannabidiolic acid which converts into CBD over time. Adams’ discoveries would pave the way for the most rigorous century of CBD oil research in human history.

In 1963, an Israeli chemist named Raphael Mechoulam furthered CBD research by discovering cannabidiol’s molecular structure and synthesizing the cannabinoid for the first time two years later. Mechoulam’s pivotal findings intersected fortuitously with rising rates of global cannabis consumption. With increasing usage and growing cultural interest, scientists were developing a greater academic curiosity in studying cannabis. Most researchers, however, were devoted to exploring the psychoactive properties of THC, leaving Raphael Mechoulam to continue pioneering the potentials of CBD. 

In 1980, Raphael Mechoulam and his team published a groundbreaking paper demonstrating the efficacy of treating epileptic seizures with cannabidiol (CBD). In their study, four of the eight test subjects who were given CBD in the study became nearly convulsion-free, while three others demonstrated apparent improvement.

Despite this significance, Mechoulam’s findings were ultimately ahead of the times. Back then, the general public and various world governments largely perceived cannabis and its constituents as a threat. As a result, Mechoulam’s study was left to languish in relative obscurity until years later when it would become the foundation for a new era of epileptic therapy.

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The 1980s-1990s: Foundational Discoveries

During the 1980s and onwards, scientists unearthed a slew of new cannabidiol (CBD) discoveries that would forever change how we perceive CBD’s interaction with the body. 

The paradigm shift began with Allyn Howlett and Bill Devane, who discovered that cannabis could bind to select G-protein-coupled receptors in the body. At the time, scientists knew that CBD and other cannabinoids possessed psychoactive properties due to CBD oil’s research history, but the underlying mechanisms for their effects were a mystery. One theory was that CBD and THC dissolved through cell membranes which would eventually be disproven. 

Ultimately, Howlett and Devane’s efforts would pave the way for the discovery of the CB1 and CB2 receptors — considered to be the principal mediators of cannabis’s psychoactive effects. Although scientists began conducting in vitro studies on these receptors soon after, researchers were also particularly interested in determining which specific cannabinoid effects were attributable to select receptors. By transitioning to in vivo studies with mice, researchers were able to better their understanding of the underlying mechanisms behind cannabis’s properties.

Meanwhile, other researchers were interested in discovering if cannabinoid receptors could be activated from within the body, rather than solely from external cannabinoids like cannabidiol. Sure enough, in 1992, Raphael Mechoulam and Bill Devane successfully isolated a molecule from pig brains that could activate the CB1 receptors. The two researchers subsequently named the fatty acid neurotransmitter “Anandamide” after the Sanskrit term “Ananda,” meaning “joy” or “bliss.” Soon after, the discovery of other endogenous cannabinoids followed including 2-arachidonoyl glycerol and virodhamine.

The 1990s-2000s: A Turning Point in CBD Oil History

Following the establishment of the endocannabinoid system paradigm, cannabidiol (CBD) began to develop a favorable reputation in the mid-1990s to early 2000s. At that point in the United States, cannabis (and by extension, CBD) had already been decriminalized in several states, including Oregon, Alaska, Maine, Colorado, California, and Ohio. Public and cultural perceptions of cannabis had shifted, and researchers began investigating the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids like CBD.

Nonetheless, despite the changing landscape surrounding CBD, nobody in the United States could legally take advantage of the cannabinoid’s benefits due to the country’s Controlled Substances Act, which defined recreational and medicinal cannabis — and all of its constituents including cannabidiol (CBD) — as prohibited substances.

However, in 1996, the tides of CBD legality would change CBD oil history forever when California legalized medicinal cannabis with Proposition 215. Authored by activists Dennis Peron, Anna Boyce, and others, the proposition drew nationwide attention to the therapeutic value of cannabis. Two years later in 1998, Oregon, Alaska, and Washington also legalized medical cannabis, as well as Maine (1999) and Hawaii, Nevada, and Colorado (2000) in the years to come. In addition to increasing legal access to cannabidiol (CBD), these legalization efforts would spur more research into the cannabinoid’s properties within the scientific community.

On October 7th, 2003, the United States government took notice of cannabis’s medicinal utility and patented various cannabinoids — including THC, CBD, and others — as antioxidants and neuroprotectants. The patent, numbered 6,630,507, signaled to the public that the government was interested in developing cannabinoid-based medicine and that the stigma surrounding the plant was shifting on a federal level.

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The 2010s to Present Day: Mass Adoption and Soaring Consumer Interest

The turn of the decade ushered in a momentous chapter in CBD oil history. In 2011, the Stanley brothers developed a high-cannabidiol (CBD), low-THC cannabis strain by crossbreeding a cannabis plant with industrial hemp. While the strain didn’t capture the attention of most cannabis buyers, it found a niche market among consumers who were primarily interested in CBD.

In 2013, two parents began using the Stanley brothers’ strain in its extracted form to treat their young daughter, Charlotte Figi, who was suffering from frequent seizures due to Dravet syndrome. At the time, Charlotte was having up to 300 seizures a week despite receiving medical treatment. Upon administering the cannabidiol, Charlotte’s parents were astounded when the treatment began reducing the frequency of her seizures down to only several a month.

Charlotte’s success story received extensive media coverage which highlighted CBD’s therapeutic potential. In the coming years, sixteen US states passed laws permitting CBD use with a doctor’s recommendation, rather than a formal prescription. The Stanley brothers soon renamed their high-CBD strain to “Charlotte’s Web” in honor of Figi and in reference to the children’s book of the same name.

As CBD’s antiepileptic properties continued to drive mainstream attention, the cannabinoid’s nascent potential also attracted researchers. However, cannabis (and by extension, cannabidiol (CBD)) was still illegal on a federal level which impeded the research efforts of interested parties. Thankfully, in 2015, the DEA reduced the severity of the Controlled Substances Act’s regulatory requirements on cannabis, helping to foster research efforts surrounding the benefits of CBD.

Several years later, the United States delisted hemp-derived CBD as a controlled substance with the enactment of the 2018 farm bill, allowing American citizens greater access to its beneficial properties. That same year, CBD generated over $500 million in total US sales with some analysts predicting that the industry will grow to $16 billion by 2025.

Today, cannabidiol (CBD) oil enjoys healthy popularity within a broad demographic and can be purchased from stores across the nation or online across the globe.

The 2010s and Beyond: The Future of CBD & Further Medical Utility

Although the history of CBD oil has been promising so far, nobody knows exactly what the future will hold for this plant-based powerhouse.

Aside from recreational use, pharmaceutical companies are already utilizing CBD as the primary constituent of various medications — a trend that may continue throughout the 21st century. The first cannabidiol (CBD)-based pharmaceutical was Epidiolex, a medication manufactured by British-based GW Pharmaceuticals for treating seizures caused by Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. Approved by the United States FDA in 2018, Epidiolex is now available nationwide on a prescription basis.

Meanwhile, CBD is positioned to make a splash in various other industries where the cannabinoid has captured the attention of both big-name and emerging brands. Anheuser-Busch InBev — the brewer of Budweiser and Molson Coors — has voiced their interest in developing non-alcoholic CBD-oil-infused beers. Meanwhile, industry leaders in the cosmetics sector like Sephora, The Body Shop, and others are catering to the CBD craze with various cannabidiol (CBD)-infused beauty products.

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