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The Storied and Remarkable History of CBD

Like The Little Engine That Could, the upstart cannabis compound cannabidiol (or CBD for short) has burst into the public consciousness with greater force than most of its critics might have anticipated.

Its emergence into the mainstream is especially surprising against the backdrop of the multi-decade “War on Drugs” with cannabis squarely in the crosshairs.

However, CBD has been around a lot longer than the last few years, or even the last few decades. Its use as medicine extends back thousands of years to the earliest glimmers of human civilization.

Where did CBD come from?

CBD is one of more than a hundred currently identified cannabinoids – unique compounds exclusively found in the cannabis plant with unique health benefits.

THC and CBG are other popular cannabinoids.

Some cannabinoids are psychoactive (such as THC), meaning they produce a “high,” or euphoria. Others (including CBD) are non-psychoactive, meaning they produce no such effect.

Source: CNBS

Extracted CBD in isolation won’t get you “high” – but it will provide an array of potential health benefits that we’ll discuss in an upcoming section.

It is for these health benefits – as well as for making fabrics, ropes, and as a food crop – that cannabis has been cultivated far and wide across multiple continents for thousands of years.

In a provocatively-titled article Founders of Western civilisation were prehistoric dope dealers, the New Scientist explains that the origins of cannabis cultivation date as far back as the Paleolithic era:

“During a short time window at the end of the last ice age, Stone Age humans in Europe and Asia independently began using a new plant: cannabis…

Central Eurasia’s Yamnaya people – thought to be one of the three key tribes that founded European civilisation ­– dispersed eastwards at this time and are thought to have spread cannabis… throughout Eurasia.”

Since they lacked the tools for modern chemistry work, such ancient cultures cultivating cannabis crops didn’t necessarily understand what the cannabinoid CBD was per se, and they didn’t have a name for the molecule. But they understood its powerful and versatile uses nonetheless.

Of course, the fibrous hemp plant, and not CBD in particular, was cultivated widely throughout history for sails, paper, clothing, and other commercial products.

But the crop was also medicine among many ancient cultures.

For instance, Shen-Nung, the 2700s-era “Father of Chinese Medicine,” used cannabis, transliterated as “ma” in native Mandarian, in his rudimentary clinic practice as folk medicine. CBD is at the heart of cannabis’ therapeutic properties – which, again, we will explore more in-depth coming up.

The bottom line: CBD, and the rest of the cannabis plant, has been used in medicine for millennia. Only recently, though, have researchers uncovered the exact physiological mechanisms behind the compound’s therapeutic properties. 

CBD comes to the New World

Before the 20th century American prohibition on “marijuana,” the historical record shows that CBD-rich cannabis “was widely grown throughout colonial America and at Spanish missions in the Southwest.”

Indeed, the cannabis crop is so versatile, and therefore useful for survival, that America’s earliest colonial settlers in Jamestown, in 1619, forced their residents to cultivate cannabis by law. Similar laws abounded in Colonial America. Many Founding Fathers, in fact, grew and traded in hemp.

It is an ultimate irony, then, that Western civilization — led and represented first and foremost by the world’s sole superpower, the United States – has been both the epicenter of the global “War on Drugs” and one of the original progenitors of cannabis cultivation in the first instance.

History, as they say, is stranger than fiction.

When was CBD first discovered and isolated?

The first recorded successful extraction of CBD was achieved in 1940 by a Harvard-trained chemist named Roger Adams.

Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, dubbed the “godfather of cannabis research” in pop culture, continued that work and expanded on Adams’ discovery. In 1963, he became the first scientist to describe the compound’s chemical structure in detail.

He and his research team did the same with THC and numerous other cannabinoids.

Of his work in a 2019 interview with the International League Against Epilepsy, Dr. Mechoulam explained the clinical significance of his work:

[In the 1960s] I was surprised to find out that while morphine had been isolated from opium 150 years previously, and cocaine had been isolated 100 years previously, the chemistry of cannabis was not well known…

In order to understand the pharmacology and do clinical trials, you need a strong chemical basis. That’s why my group started looking at the chemistry of cannabinoids.  “

Thus, having isolated the main molecule in cannabis responsible for the most known potential health benefits based on current knowledge, Dr. Mechoulam had set the groundwork for the explosion of CBD in the medical field.

Why has CBD become so popular among health-conscious Americans?

Not so long ago, in the age of the 1960s counterculture, cannabis use was restricted in the popular imagination to hippies in drum circles driving Volkswagen vans.

Accordingly, until the Farm Bill of 2018 changed the game, hemp and all of its byproducts such as CBD were federally illegal. Millions of Americans have been locked up since the Nixon-era drug war began in 1970 for cannabis possession.  

But, as Bob Dylan noted, “the times are a changin’.” In the modern era the statistics paint a markedly different picture:

  • At least 7% of Americans report using CBD for various therapeutic purposes.
  • Doctors routinely recommend it to patients to replace or to augment conventional therapies.
  • The legitimate CBD industry is expected to balloon to $16 billion by the year 2025.  

So, what changed, exactly?

The short answer is that scientific research has caught up with the truth that folk medicine practitioners have known for a long time: CBD is a powerful potential healing agent.

The documented potential health benefits of CBD include, but are not necessarily limited to:

Read more about the multi-faceted health benefits of CBD in our comprehensive Sympleaf blog post on the topic.

New research consistently uncovers new clinical applications for CBD and the other cannabinoids sourced exclusively from the cannabis plant.

Contact Sympleaf to learn more about CBD and its storied history

The story of CBD has just begun to unfold. We’re always eager to discuss all things CBD with our Georgia customers and neighbors. Contact Sympleaf and we’ll get back to you ASAP.

And don’t forget to check out our wide selection of high-potency, purity-tested CBD products available via our online store, formulated as gummies, oils, tinctures, creams, and more. You’re guaranteed to find something that tickles your fancy.


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