The name of CBD, formally called cannabidiol, has become nearly ubiquitous in common culture today. You can find CBD products in numerous drug store chains country-wide and even corner bodegas. Not all of that is reliable CBD, but it touts the CBD label and has further spread awareness of the compound in some fashion. It has already become a multi-billion dollar industry, and the value is only increasing as the years go on. 

Whether in or out of the CBD industry itself, many people wonder: How did we get here? 

Below, we look at the trajectory of CBD popularity, working back from where we are today up through the events and discoveries that brought us to this point.

 

Working backwards

It’s 2020, and at this point in history, CBD is heavily commercialized. Entrepreneurs and investors have fully seized on the economic opportunity they saw in the compound, and because of it, CBD products are everywhere. However, many of them are fake or have significantly reduced ratios of CBD, lots of false labeling, and inadequate testing and analyses. The field is largely unregulated, which has promoted the growth of CBD business, but also effectively demoted its reputation as a viable and estimable treatment option for various health conditions—in large part due to CBD’s association with marijuana and THC (a.k.a. tetrahydrocannabinol), the public opinion of which has long been negative.

And all of this has happened with relative expediency. Ten years ago, there were only a handful of medical and scientific experts encouraging CBD’s proliferation; there was certainly no reality of an industry valued in the tens of billions. That handful of experts, including several from the marijuana field, saw a business opportunity, yes—but they saw medical and scientific legitimacy much more, and they wanted to get the word out. The specific group of individuals can be traced back to a summit in 2011. 

 

A 2011 meeting of the CBD minds

The summit consisted of a few scientists, doctors, cannabis activists, writers, and marijuana farmers who got together to discuss the growing body of clinical research reporting numerous health benefits from using CBD, as found in studies on rats and cell cultures. Among the benefits already discovered at the time were reducing seizures, relieving pain and inflammation, protecting the nervous system, impeding cancer development, and regulating blood pressure. The group met to not only discuss these benefits, but also to create a plan to educate the broader public about CBD, persuade established marijuana dispensaries to start carrying CBD products, and urge more marijuana farmers to grow cannabis strains with high-CBD content (those strains had largely been bred out rotation at that point due to the high demand of THC-heavy marijuana). 

The group also specifically wanted to ensure that beneficial CBD strains and products would be taken seriously by federal regulators and other medical professionals. The research had shown that at that point patients being treated with CBD for a variety of conditions showed the greatest improvement in symptoms when the CBD was paired with THC in equal parts, as was the case with the drug Sativex. They found that CBD neutralized THC’s negative side effects (e.g. feeling high, increased heart rate), so the patients then received the therapeutic benefits of both compounds without the unwanted and potentially hazardous bodily reactions. Thus, it was also important to them that they decrease the harmful perception of THC to more appropriately reflect the good it can do.

The group’s campaign was certainly successful in one big way: CBD education and interest in it skyrocketed in the last nine years. But as you might expect, the compound’s origins go back way further than that. 

 

The History and Origins of CBD

 

CBD over the centuries

As part of cannabis and hemp plants, CBD has been around and used for medicinal and therapeutic aid going back at least as far as 2800 BCE. Hemp was also a cash crop in colonial America in the 1600s. However, the first reported use of CBD itself, or of a CBD-rich cannabis strain, was at the end of the 19th century, when England’s Queen Victoria used it to treat her menstrual cramp pain. Her reign ended in 1901, though, and it was almost another 40 years before a scientist named Robert S. Cahn identified the first individual cannabinoid in cannabis  to be determined, called cannabinol (CBN). In 1942, another scientist, Roger Adams, officially isolated CBD and THC. Fast-forward another two decades, and you have Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, who discovered the stereochemistry, or spatial atomic relationships, of both CBD in 1963 and THC in 1964. From this he was able to determine that it was THC, not CBD, that was the compound that produced a high.

From that point on, legalization and criminalization started to play a much bigger role in CBD’s trajectory. Marijuana had been made illegal by the federal government back in 1937, but in 1973, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize cannabis. Five years later, New Mexico passed the 1978 Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act, which granted the study of marijuana for medicinal use and recognized its potential benefits. By 1982, over thirty other states had done the same.

Through the rest of the 1980s, Dr. Mechoulam continued to study CBD, particularly its use as a treatment for patients with epilepsy. In his eight-patient study, half of the patients stopped having seizures after taking CBD for four months, and the others experienced a reduced number of seizures. The United States was in the midst of the war on drugs, which was started under President Nixon and continued by his predecessors, so the results of Mechoulam’s study were considered too controversial and dangerous, and were therefore never published.

 

The U.S. and UK on CBD

Then in 1996, California became the first state to fully legalize medical marijuana, followed closely by Oregon, Alaska, Washington, Maine, Hawaii, Nevada, and Colorado. This prompted additional studies into CBD, however, for much of the rest of the 90s and early 2000s, the social stigma around cannabis and all its components and derivatives was so strong in the U.S. that the social needle on its acceptability stayed pretty well stagnant. 

The United Kingdom, though, was moving a bit faster. A company called GW Pharmaceuticals was given license in 1998 by the UK government to grow cannabis and develop a strain that would produce consistent results for use in clinical trials. GW’s founder, Dr. Geoffrey Guy, pushed to develop a CBD-rich strain of cannabis where the CBD would provide a counterbalance to THC, and patients would be able to experience CBD’s own benefits. Hence, Sativex was born.  

Word spread across the pond, which soon drove efforts to compel California farms to start growing more CBD-rich strains. As this started to come to fruition, experts in the field (many of whom were the same experts as from the summit mentioned above) recognized the need for better testing and analysis, since there was no formal regulation or testing structure in the U.S. or California state at that point. So, in 2008, Steep Hill labs was created to test cannabis strains from California growers to find ones with high-CBD content. One year later, they’d found five such strains. 

 

The CBD explosion

The following year, in 2010, CBD’s renown exploded when CNN broadcasted the story of then-6-year-old Charlotte Figi, who had a rare form of epilepsy called Dravet syndrome. For the first few years of her life after her diagnosis, Charlotte had experienced incredibly intense seizures—as many as 300 a week. After trying every possible solution, her parents finally had her take CBD oil, and the seizures nearly stopped entirely. 

Word of CBD’s potential medicinal benefit definitely got around after that, which brings us to the 2011 summit and the experts there. They wanted to keep the momentum going so that more people could experience the benefits of the compound. 

 

CBD today

Well, CBD’s use sped up and popularity surged, but it’s still not regulated on any major scale. The 2014 Farm Bill allowed research into hemp’s therapeutic uses (but made no mention of CBD), and finally, the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp cultivation and production. Technically, CBD from hemp is federally legal, but CBD from cannabis still is not, unless it’s grown in a state that has already legalized cannabis. So, the legal waters surrounding CBD remain murky and its association with marijuana (and the resulting stigma from that) is still somewhat intact. But the hope is that with so much growth in the industry, legislators will be incentivized to give CBD some attention. While the experts from the 2011 summit are not convinced, we at CBD Products remain optimistic. 

Anthony Tribunella

Having experienced the benefits of CBD first hand when it was starting to gain popularity, Anthony decided to spend his working life championing it to the public and his peers in the wider CBD community. As a CBD innovator himself, Anthony likes to remain at the leading edge of scientific and product development to ensure that the potential of CBD has every chance of being fully realized.

See all posts by Anthony Tribunella

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