The History of CBD

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How long has CBD been popular?  Who discovered that it was helpful for pain? For stress and depression?  How does the history of CBD relate to the history of hemp? To the history of THC? We will answer these and other questions, right now.

Discovering the Benefits of CBD

Today we know CBD as Cannabidiol, which is a type of Cannabinoid.  We know it as an edible, ingestible, or vape-able supplement that many people turn to as a drug-free form of pain relief.  Yet, it took a while for people to recognize that this extract from predominantly hemp plants (though it can come from marijuana plants as well) had some use and wasn’t just a by-product.

Dr. Mechoulam Learns the Structure of CBD

Probably the biggest figure in the early history of CBD is Dr. Raphael Mechoulam.  This scientist was born in Bulgaria in 1930.  His father made it through the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp and the family drifted as refugees before settling down in Israel in 1949.  Mechoulam, the son of a doctor, studied biochemistry at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

Meanwhile, in the United States, marijuana was a shadowy figure on the fringes of society.  It had earlier been associated largely with Mexican laborers in the West, and thought of as a cause of violence and other “deviant” behavior.  By the 1950’s, it was vaguely associated with biker gangs (“hoods” or “hoodlums”), African-Americans, particularly musicians, and members of ignored classes outside of the mainstream of a country that was victorious in WWII and thriving economically.  The Boggs Act of 1952 established sentences of 2-10 years and fines of up to $20,000 for first-time possession charges.

Around the beginning of the 1960’s, an “important person” whose identity wasn’t made known to Mechoulam contacted the head of pharmacology at America’s National Institute of Health, panicked after having found his son using marijuana.  That man contacted Mechoulam and asked him to find out how harmful pot was.  Mechoulam, who’d previously been denied a grant from that agency to study that very drug, dug in, surprised that so little was known about marijuana.

In short, Mechoulam became the man who isolated THC and figured out that this chemical was the active ingredient in Cannabis, the substance that caused a “high.”  This was just one component of the work of Mechoulam and his team—THC was one of the substances he found among the Cannabinoids he’d isolated.

Upon further inquiry, Mechoulam looked into CBD (which a scientist named Roger Adams had isolated in 1930, but hadn’t explored) and figured out its structure.  He found that Cannabis Sativa produces a compound called phenolic acids, which break down into either THC or CBD, each with their individual chemical makeups.  As you can see, Mechoulam had developed the key concept concerning THC vs. CBD, which is the former is psychoactive, while CBD had, he initially realized, some impacts on pain.

Dr. Mechoulam Links CBD to Epilepsy

Mechoulam’s early work was in the 1960’s. He continued for nearly another decade, looking into the pain-relieving properties of CBD.  Yet, one of his biggest and most landmark discoveries came from an unlikely source—an ancient legend.  Related in a modern book on hashish, the tale said that a 15th-century poet had given hashish to the son of a government official, who suffered epilepsy, thus curing his seizures.  (This is why literature is so valuable!). So, Mechoulam contacted a lab in Sao Paolo, Brazil; in collaboration, Mechoulam and this facility set up some CBD tests on animals.  After these worked and showed good results, these scientists decided to cross over into human study.  Their first trial involved fifteen subjects.  Of the group that received CBD (200-300 mg daily), seven of the eight experienced either complete or partial relief of seizures.  Those in the placebo group saw no improvement.

The study did not get the attention Mechoulam had hoped it would, even though it showed important conclusive results.  However, it got the attention of some parents of children with rare, infant forms of epilepsy, Dravet Syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome.  For reasons no one understands, CBD never saw major production during the 1980s, while these parents were learning about Mechoulam’s study.  Meanwhile, medical marijuana was gaining in popularity, including as a remedy for Epilepsy and for, specifically, stopping seizures.  Research indicates that parents, seeking medical marijuana with as low a THC concentration as possible periodically touched upon CBD.  But what seems to be the earliest recorded use of CBD for Dravet Syndrome was not until 2000, when a Dravet sufferer named Charlotte, who’d been having 300 seizures per day, found full relief with CBD.

It was during the first decade of the 21st century that, because of this first success, CBD became a well-recognized remedy for seizures and for these rare infant forms of Epilepsy.  In 2017, The New England Journal of Medicine published a clinical trial that showed clear success in reducing the number of seizures of Dravet Syndrome.  That, among other factors, prompted the FDA, in 2018, to approve the use of CBD for both Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut.  Clearly, FDA approval represents a mainstreaming of the substance.

CBD Recognized for other Conditions

It seems that the usage of CBD for Dravet Syndrome opened floodgates for research of CBD’s benefits on various pain-intensive conditions.  The research, sometimes on mice and sometimes with human subjects, usually shows positive impacts of CBD.  A look at references from various scientific articles on the subject reveals studies going back to 2001 (keeping in mind some of Mechoulam’s earlier work), many of them in the two-thousand teens.  Some of the other major problems aided by CBD (most of them with pain as their chief symptom) are:

  • Fibromyalgia
  • Arthritis
  • Crohn’s Disease
  • Migraine
  • Sciatica
  • High blood pressure
  • Breast cancer

How Did CBD Become a Replacement for Opioids?

As you can see, CBD is known, through clinical trials, to help with some nagging conditions we often associate with the use of opioids, prescription or otherwise.  Therefore, it isn’t surprising that people attempting to quit highly-addictive opioids (fentanyl, Vicodin, Percocet, heroin) often turn to CBD as a way to gently ease themselves off the dangerous drugs without feeling pain.  To understand how and why CBD became so valuable and commonplace as a replacement for opioids, let’s first understand the development of the opioid crisis.

In the 1990s, pharmaceutical companies were successful in convincing doctors across the country to prescribe their opioids.  Here’s the damage that ensued:

  • 21-29% of people prescribed opioids misuse them
  • Opioid overdoses went up by 30% from Jul. 2016- Sept. 2017
  • In 2017, 1.7 million Americans suffered a substance use disorder involving opioids
  • In 2017, 47,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses

The mass media increasingly covered America’s opioid crisis, prompting people to look for alternatives.  This attention probably played a role in the legalization of not only medical but also recreational marijuana in many states.  It also played a big role in the popularization of CBD, which impacts a wider range of pain with a wider range of causes than CBD does.  Not only does abundant anecdotal evidence point to weaning off opioids as a major reason for using for turning to CBD, but recent research gives hope that CBD actually cuts down on cravings for one opioid, heroin.

Discovery and Understanding of the Endocannabinoid System

As you can tell, CBD is, particularly in historical terms, new and still slightly mysterious.  It is, for reasons that are perfectly logical, confused with THC; some people may think it’s something that folks take simply from a friend’s recommendations.  However, among all the millions of plants out there, Cannabis Sativa is one of a few that our brain has receptors for.  Now, it doesn’t have receptors we build up by using CBD; no, the receptors—indeed, a whole system—is there just waiting.

This is called the Endocannabinoid System, and understanding how it works is crucial in having a full understanding of how CBD does what it does.

In the 1980s,  scientists to discover a whole—very important—system in our bodies.  Previously, scientists had been more interested in understanding the structure of THC than CBD, since, as outlined, CBD’s benefits for pain relief would become known only later.  While looking for how THC worked in the brain (in terms of actual mechanics, not the effects), scientists felt that cannabinoids of all kinds had a disruptive effect in our systems; rather than binding with receptors in the traditional way, it was THC’s partial fit that caused psycho activity.  In 1975, Lawrence and Gill asserted that there was no use looking for specific receptors for cannabinoids.

Enter Dr. Allyn Howlett, who earned her PhD at Rutgers in 1976 and began a professorship at St. Louis University, digging into research on Cannabinoids.  Her research uncovered something very significant, the way Cannabinoids interact with Gi/o proteins.  These are protein-coupled receptors, and they regulate calcium signaling and regulate hormone secretion.  In short, this interaction leads to the inhibition of an important enzyme found throughout the body, adenylate cyclase.  Well, studies have shown, for example, that this inhibition can increase the organism’s lifespan.  A few years later, Howlett collaborated with an employee of her lab, William Devane, and they worked with a cannabinoid called CP55940.  To make a long story short, working on rats, the researchers found specific receptors for this cannabinoid.  The cannabinoid produced “cannabimimetic responses” in mice; coupled with the way cannabinoids are received by adenylate cyclase, this demonstrated that cannabinoids did indeed have receptors.

Not Just Receptors, but a Whole Symptom

In 1990, Lin Matsuda, a biologist at the NIH in Washington, D.C., isolated and was able to clone the CBreceptor.  Discussing this finding on Aug. 11 of that year, New Scientist’s Alison Abbott surmised, “[i]t is unlikely that nature has endowed humans with such a specific receptor simply to tempt us to smoke a plant…so there must be a more fundamental biological reason..”.

In other words, it’s one thing for certain plants to happen to produce positive effects in our bodies, but still another for receptors to have been sitting there waiting all along.  What were these receptors doing in our bodies? What from inside of us do they receive?  This line of thought led scientists to the develop of what we now know as the Endocannabinoid System (ECS).

We now know that we have within us chemicals called Endocannabinoids.  Endo means inside—cannabinoids inside of us.  Imagine these things hiding in our bodies for thousands of years of human civilization!  This means, of course, that chemicals derived from the Cannabis plant are equivalents to some that are inside of us.  That logically, should, change the way people conceptualize both THC and CBD differently.  Now, in addition to the Endocannabinoids, the ECS is made up of receptors for those Endocannabinoids (and phytocannabinoids, such as CBD and THC) and enzymes that facilitate the processing.

The function of the ECS is to help regulate more-or-less automatic processes like sleep, hunger, and our immune system.  Endocannabinoids essentially stop neurons in our brains from firing too much—so if neurons are saying “make this person have hunger pangs” over and over, a healthy ECS will, before long, say “OK, I get it, stop telling me this.”  If you haven’t eaten, you’ll still be hungry, but our bodies tend to do a particular thing for only so long before something tells it to bring things back into balance.  That is how the ECS helps with pain—neurons fire off too many signals growing white blood cells and that inflames cells in our bodies, causing pain.  The ECS pushes back against that and stops that inflammation.

The two kinds of receptors that are part of the ECS are CB1 and CB2.  In the history of CBD, the isolation of these two different receptors is extremely important.  That is due to the fact that people sometimes think that CBD is the same as THC.  The fact that these substances bind with different receptors in our brains in bodies is a good way of clearing up possible confusion.  CBreceptors are located in the brain, while CBreceptors are found primarily in the body.  That’s an easy way of remembering that THC has psychoactive properties, whereas CBD does not.

CBD is Legal

The understanding of the ECS and the Cannabinoids inside of us has been helpful in keeping CBD relatively free of stigma.  In fact, the understanding of THC’s help with pain has created cracks in the solid prohibition of marijuana.  THC is increasingly becoming legal for medical purposes, and even recreationally in state after state.  By contrast, CBD is legal federally.

The Legality of CBD

Cannabis Sativa plants with more than 0.3% THC are classified as marijuana, and those with less than 0.3% are hemp.  That is part of why hemp was historically associated with the production of products like rope and clothing—the value lay in the fibers, with the leaves not being good for much.  With the advent of CBD, that has changed, and there’s much more demand for hemp.  Financial potential means pressure on politicians, who in turn want the economies in their districts to reap the benefits of having lucrative crops.

Therefore,  Congress passed the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized the cultivation of hemp across the board in the U.S.  Previously, it had been allowed in isolated pilot programs, and a lot of the hemp-derived products sold in the U.S. had come from hemp imported from Canada.  Because CBD has no THC, the easiest way to extract it is from hemp plants.  This was a huge boon for the industry, and it may be why you started seeing more CBD products around 2018.

No matter what anyone says, CBD is legal everywhere in the  U.S.  This is due to the legality of hemp as well as an absence of laws against CBD.  Because CBD doesn’t produce the “high” of THC, it’s hard to imagine how it could be added to the Controlled Substance Act’s drug schedule.  So far, whatever the letter of the law, the FDA hasn’t stopped companies from infusing food products with CBD companies to infuse their food products with CBD, even if bigger food companies protest.  In any case, CBD doesn’t seem to face challenges to its legality when sold in non-food products.  Tinctures, vaping juice, capsules, and topical creams are all just fine.  This is partly due to the idea that people are essentially seeking out CBD when buying it in this form, and some folks think it might sneak past them in other forms.

Ben and Jerry’s is awaiting an official go-ahead from the FDA before it rolls out a CBD-infused ice cream.  That may represent part of the future of CBD: in addition to a likely increase in the use of CBD tinctures, vaping liquid, etc., we may see people taking it in as part of their diets.  Three of four chefs surveyed in 2019’s National Restaurant Association survey named CBD as the hot trend of the year.  CBD doesn’t show any signs of cooling off.

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