A brief history of CBD in the US

Have you ever wondered what exactly CBD is and where it comes from? How about its history and legal status over time in the US? If so, read this.

It all starts with hemp

Cannabidiol (CBD) is a naturally occurring chemical compound derived from the hemp plant. Hemp has been around since before recorded history and was used medicinally as early as 2727 BC.

In colonial America, hemp was a key cash crop. It became a staple of the fledgling United States economy when the US gained independence from Great Britain. For some states like Virginia and Georgia, hemp was a top-earning export.

It's important to note that, at that time, hemp was mostly used in an industrial capacity for its fiber rather than for consumption. In fact, an early draft of the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper.

Hemp is outlawed

During the early 1900s, some activists focused on illegalizing hemp with high THC content—also referred to as "marijuana" or "cannabis sativa" then—due to its intoxicating effects.

In a somewhat confusing series of events around 1937, all hemp was categorically outlawed in the US with the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act, including low-THC industrial hemp not used for consumption. Per the new legislation, only individuals and businesses with official government approval could continue to cultivate, possess, or sell hemp of any kind.

Adams isolates CBD

With hemp newly behind a tax wall, access became more difficult. Despite this, some researchers were able to obtain federal approval to study the plant further.

In 1940, a University of Illinois research team led by Harvard grad Roger Adams isolated CBD as a chemical compound, although they weren't exactly sure what they had found. Nonetheless, this achievement was a significant milestone that accelerated broader research into cannabinoids.

Loewe studies CBD in animals

Over the next several years, most cannabis research focused on two particular cannabinoids: CBD and THC. Six years after the discovery of CBD by Adams and team, Dr. Walter Loewe conducted landmark studies into the effects of both CBD and THC on mice and rabbits in 1946.

Loewe concluded that THC was the primary psychoactive compound, or "excitant," in cannabis and that CBD did not have any appreciable effect whatsoever. This view would remain dominant for about the next 20 years until the emergence of new CBD research halfway around the world.

Mechoulam officially discovers CBD

Although Adams initially isolated CBD and Loewe subsequently studied it, the "discovery of CBD" as such can be attributed to Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam, who was the first to correctly describe the chemical structure of CBD in 1963 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Mechoulam also first described the chemical structure of THC the following year in 1964 and is considered by many to be the godfather of modern cannabis research. Mechoulam soon experimented with both CBD and THC in primates, noting the strong psychotropic effects of THC and the lack thereof from CBD.

Controlled Substances Act bans all hemp

When part of the Marihuana Tax Act was ruled unconstitutional in 1969, the Nixon administration responded in 1970 by adding all hemp, including low-THC industrial hemp, to Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), thereby categorizing it alongside much harder drugs like Heroin, LSD, and Ecstasy.

This development would prove to be a major setback for CBD-related research in the US for years to come. Meanwhile, CBD research would continue abroad in Europe and South America, fueled by Mechoulam's discoveries and focused on the medicinal effects of CBD and THC.

Cannabis is recognized medicinally for the first time

Mechoulam's successful identification of the two primary active cannabinoids, CBD and THC, set off a wave of interest in the medicinal potential of cannabis. In the 1970s, British Pharmacopoeia, a publication of quality standards for medicinal substances in the UK, released a licensed cannabis tincture containing CBD in a full-spectrum oil for therapeutic purposes.

In 1978, New Mexico became the first state in the US to legally acknowledge the medicinal potential of cannabis with the passage of the Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act. Although it did not specifically name CBD as a therapeutic agent, this legislation was groundbreaking in terms of legally recognizing cannabis and cannabinoid compounds as medicinally legitimate.

Mechoulam studies CBD and epilepsy

In February 1980, Mechoulam teamed up with research scientists from the Sao Paulo Medicine Faculty of Santa Casa in Brazil to study the effects of CBD on 16 individuals with severe epilepsy, many of them children. It was one of the first known double-blind trials of CBD on clinical subjects.

The results of the experiment were nothing short of astounding: all 16 subjects experienced an improvement in their condition with negligible side effects as a result of using CBD. This was one of the most significant cannabis-related medical findings in history.

Mechoulam's CBD-epilepsy findings ignored

The significance of the CBD-epilepsy findings made it all the more baffling that Mechoulam's work went virtually unnoticed by the medical and pharmaceutical industries at the time.

Some speculate that growing stigma around cannabis resulting from the American psychedelic counterculture movement in the '60s and '70s contributed to willful ignorance about cannabis' medicinal potential.

Mechoulam later reflected grimly on the lack of recognition for his findings on CBD and epilepsy: “Who cared about our findings? No one! …And that’s despite many of the epilepsy patients being kids who have 20, 30, 40 seizures a day. And what did they do? Nothing!"

California legalizes medical marijuana

When California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, it became the first state in the US to make any form of cannabis legal after the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. In doing so, California paved the way for other states to do the same, including Alaska, Oregon, and Washington 1998; Maine in 1999; and Colorado, Hawaii, and Nevada in 2000.

US government patents CBD

In 2003, US Department of Health and Human Services filed US patent #6,630,507 for CBD and other cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants. Per the patent filing abstract:

The cannabinoids are found to have particular application as neuroprotectants, for example in limiting neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and HIV dementia.

This development was particularly confusing, considering the status of cannabis and cannabis derivatives as Schedule I controlled substances. Nonetheless, the patent filing stands as a testament to the therapeutic potential of CBD and other cannabinoids.

Charlotte Figi gains national attention

In 2013, CNN reported the story of Charlotte Figi, a child with a severe form of epilepsy called Dravet syndrome, which typically appears within the first year of life and causes children to have violent seizures. Dravet syndrome is intractable, meaning it does not respond to pharmaceutical medications and is therefore extremely difficult to treat and manage. Many afflicted children die before reaching adulthood.

Charlotte began having seizures when she was three months old. Over the next several years as the frequency and severity of her seizures increased, Charlotte's parents tried every treatment available for Dravet, ranging from anti-epileptic pharmaceuticals to dietary changes, with little improvement in Charlotte's condition. By the time she was five years old, Charlotte was having up to 300 grand mal seizures a week, living in a catatonic state.

At wits' end after realizing there was nothing else the medical establishment could do to help, Charlotte's parents began to investigate novel Dravet treatments. Through extensive independent research, they discovered CBD. They were amazed when Charlotte's violent seizures all but disappeared. It seemed as if this cannabis-derived treatment was the solution they had been seeking for years.

Charlotte's story was published in mainstream news outlets, causing a spike in awareness of these intractable forms of epilepsy afflicting children. Support for medicinal CBD skyrocketed. Calls for the legalization of CBD for medical use began to enter the political dialogue in numerous states across the US.

2014 Farm Bill legalizes industrial hemp

The Agriculture Act of 2014, also known as the 2014 Farm Bill, was signed into law with broad bipartisan support on February 7, 2014. The legislation created a legal framework for the cultivation of "industrial hemp" without a Drug Enforcement Administration permit. Cultivators had to register with their state departments of agriculture and could only grow hemp with total THC content of 0.3% or less for academic or agricultural research purposes.

First several states legalize medicinal CBD

In 2014, Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, and Wisconsin became the first states to explicitly legalize CBD for medical use. This development was particularly significant because it represented the first time CBD was legally recognized in states where medical marijuana was not legal.

2018 Farm Bill legalizes all hemp federally

The 2018 Farm Bill, officially known as Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, was passed by Congress on December 12, 2018 and signed into law by the president the following week. This landmark legislation legalized the cultivation and sale of hemp and hemp derivatives at the federal level in the US.

The 2018 Farm Bill defines "hemp" as any Cannabis sativa L. with total THC content of 0.3% or less. This aligns with the definition of "industrial hemp" in the 2014 Farm Bill. Critically, the 2018 Farm Bill removes hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, clearing the way for further medical research and commercial development into CBD and CBD-related products.