The Rise of CBD: Why one cannabinoid is exploding in popularity

CBD oils, CBD mints, CBD rubs. CBD for cats and dogs. CBD influencers and CBD ads. It seems like CBD is literally everywhere you look right now.

You've probably wondered: why is CBD so popular all of a sudden?

A rather long medicinal history

While the boom in awareness about CBD and its health benefits seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon, the cannabis plant, from which CBD is derived, has been used medicinally for thousands of years.

Medicinal use of cannabinoids, the naturally occurring chemical compounds in cannabis, is described in detail in some of the oldest surviving historical texts from numerous ancient cultures, including China, India, Egypt, Arabia, and Greece.

For example, the Ebers Papyrus, an Ancient Egyptian medical document dating to around 1550 BC, lists a prescription for medicinal cannabis applied directly to the skin to treat inflammation.

The Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 BC) lists a prescription for medicinal cannabis | Source: Wikipedia

CBD is discovered

CBD was first isolated as a chemical compound in 1940 by a team of researchers at the University of Illinois led by Harvard grad Robert Adams, although they weren't exactly sure what they had found.

Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam officially discovered CBD by correctly articulating its chemical structure in 1963 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He also officially discovered the chemical structure of THC the following year in 1964. Mechoulam is sometimes referred to as the "father of cannabis research."

Although Mechoulam subsequently conducted some breakthrough studies on CBD, demonstrating its overwhelming efficacy in reducing and eliminating seizures in children, his 1980 Brazil research was largely ignored by the medical establishment due to a prevailing stigma around cannabis at the time.

Israeli scientist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam lecturing next to blackboard with chemical structure diagram of Cannabidiol (CBD)

Israeli Scientist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam lectures on CBD | Source: Vice

CBD goes mainstream

CBD largely entered into the modern mainstream in 2013 when CNN published a story about Charlotte Figi, a young girl with a rare but severe form of epilepsy called Dravet syndrome that could only be treated with a naturally occurring compound in cannabis called cannabidiol—CBD. 

The discovery of CBD's ability to treat a number of debilitating conditions like Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, which don't respond to typical pharmaceutical medications, sparked broader interest in its therapeutic potential.

Charlotte Figi walks through a cannabis greenhouse | Source: Rolling Stone

Interest in CBD broadens

Over the past several years, CBD has been studied for its therapeutic value in the management of mood, focus, sleep, pain, inflammation, anxiety, depression, and more.

Research confirms that CBD possesses antipsychotic, analgesic, neuroprotective, anticonvulsant, antiemetic, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiarthritic, and antineoplastic properties.

CBD has also demonstrated a great safety profile in humans with no reported psychomotor slowing, negative mood effects, or vital sign abnormalities even when ingested in extremely high amounts of up to 1500mg per day.

CBD is particularly interesting as a therapeutic cannabinoid because, different from its close relative tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which induces intoxication and euphoria, CBD lacks psychotropic effects when ingested—in other words, CBD does not "get you high."

A gloved hand holding a lab beaker containing a small amount of hemp extract oil with a piece of tape saying CBD on it

A technician carries a lab beaker containing CBD distillate | Source:

2014 Farm Bill defines hemp

In addition to the rapidly emerging body of clinical evidence supporting the efficacy of CBD as a medicinal agent, CBD has secured some key legal victories in the U.S. in recent years, namely the Farm Bills of 2014 and 2018.

The 2014 Farm Bill, passed by Congress in February 2014, was a major achievement for the advancement of CBD in the U.S. generally. It establishes guidelines for officially sanctioned hemp cultivation and research.

Most importantly, it legally defines "hemp" (non-intoxicating) as cannabis containing no more than 0.3% total THC content by weight, drawing a distinction from cannabis with higher amounts of THC defined as "marijuana" (intoxicating).

However, the 2014 Farm Bill did not explicitly remove hemp from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, leading to confusion about the overall legal status of hemp and non-intoxicating CBD products until the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill.

Several hemp plants grow together at an indoor greenhouse | Source: Pixabay

2018 Farm Bill legalizes hemp and CBD federally

The 2018 Farm Bill, passed by Congress in December 2018, clears up much of the confusion about hemp's legality, outright legalizing hemp and hemp derivatives, including CBD products with low amounts of THC.

The 2018 Farm Bill also explicitly removes hemp from the Controlled Substance Act's Schedule I classification for marijuana and creates an exception for the legality of THC in low amounts in hemp and hemp derivatives.

To be clear, the Farm Bills address hemp and CBD at the federal level in the U.S. Hemp and CBD laws do vary by state, although CBD is broadly legal in most states with some exceptions. Consumers are encouraged to be knowledgable about local CBD laws in their jurisdictions.

An outdoor farm yields several healthy hemp plants | Source: MarketWatch

Understanding the state of CBD today

These advances, both medicinal and legal, have made CBD a central constituent of the wellness domain, as more and more Americans turn to natural means of managing their mental and physical health.

Knowing that cannabis and its derivatives, including CBD, have been used medicinally for thousands of years, millions are choosing to place their trust in cannabinoid-based wellness instead of, or in addition to, pharmaceutical drugs.

The supply of CBD is rising just as quickly as demand with a corresponding explosion in the amount of CBD brands on the market. And while many CBD brands like Circle City Cooperative produce premium, lab-tested CBD products, the space is indeed a fraught one: there are unfortunately some other brands offering low-quality goods manufactured with cheap materials and processes.

Consumers should do independent research to understand the nuances of different CBD product types, production methods, and levels of quality.


A neon sign hangs on a CBD retail shop's brick wall | Source: Etsy

Some key topics

A couple key topics to understand are:

  • Full spectrum CBD vs. broad spectrum CBD vs. CBD isolate 
    • Full spectrum CBD contains all cannabinoids native to the hemp plant, including CBD, CBG, CBN, CBC, and trace amounts of THC below the federal limit of 0.3% total content by weight.
    • Broad spectrum CBD contains all cannabinoids native to the hemp plant, including CBD, CBG, CBN, CBC—however, it has all THC removed for a total THC content of 0.0%.
    • CBD isolate is a highly distilled form of pure CBD with no other cannabinoids present; CBD isolate is usually a hard crystalline substance or a powder but can also be used in CBD isolate products.
    • For more information on the difference between these types of CBD products, check out our article: Full spectrum CBD, broad spectrum CBD, and CBD isolate—what's the difference?
    • Certificate of Analysis (COA): a lab-certified document detailing test results of total cannabinoid amounts in cannabis products, including CBD, THC, and sometimes other cannabinoids.
      • CBD vendors, whether retail or wholesale, should be able to produce COAs with third-party lab test results for all of their CBD products.
      • If vendors are unable to produce COAs, the products may be "homemade" CBD products of variable quality or, even worse, may not contain CBD at all—caveat emptor.
      • A genuine COA will have the name of the CBD brand and product(s) tested, the specific cannabinoids tested (usually CBD, THC, and sometimes others like CBG), and the total content of each cannabinoid per product.

    Certificate of Analysis (COA) for Circle City CBD Oil, 1000mg

    The Certificate of Analysis (COA) for Circle City CBD Oil, 1000mg shows its total cannabinoid content | Source: Circle City Cooperative

    From CBD to CBG and beyond

    As our clinical understanding of CBD expands, researchers are starting to look into other cannabinoids and their interactions with CBD and THC. One such cannabinoid attracting more attention is cannabigerol, or CBG.

    CBG possesses several similar-yet-different benefits as CBD and is also non-intoxicating. Interestingly, CBG is the precursor to all other cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, including CBD and THC. Because of this, it is sometimes referred to as the "mother of all cannabinoids."

    While more study is needed to better explore CBG's benefits, early findings indicate it may promote mental clarity and focus while acting as a neuroprotectant for the brain. It has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.

    Diagram showing how CBGa is converted into CBG and CBD

    A molecular diagram depicts how CBGa is converted into CBG and CBD through decarboxylation | Source: Analytical Cannabis

    Looking ahead to the future of CBD

    Although cannabis has been used medicinally for thousands of years, CBD has skyrocketed in popularity within the last decade due to its powerful therapeutic properties and recent legal advances around hemp in the U.S.

    The non-intoxicating cannabinoid is currently being studied for its effect on mood, focus, sleep, pain, inflammation, anxiety, depression, and more. Clinicians are evaluating CBD as a natural alternative to pharmaceutical medications.

    CBD has proven to be extremely safe for humans; however, consumers should beware of varying levels of product quality on the market and do independent research before making a purchase.

    The future of cannabinoid-based treatments and therapies remains bright. While many have long been familiar with THC and its psychotropic effects, CBD is emerging as a non-intoxicating alternative with numerous health benefits.

    For more information on the history of CBD in the US check out our article: A brief history of CBD in the US.

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