The History of CBD In America: A Comprehensive Overview

The History of CBD In America: A Comprehensive Overview

The history of CBD in America starts many years ago and continues into today. Read on for more information about how the history of hemp and CBD have changed in America.

If you’re like most Americans, three years ago you’d never heard of CBD but now you’re seeing CBD products everywhere. Maybe you’re even using some yourself. But where did it come from?


You may be aware that it comes from the cannabis plant, but do you know how we discovered CBD and the path it took to becoming a federally legal and popular wellness aid?


If not, then you’re in luck because we’re offering a comprehensive overview of the history of CBD oil in America. Including everything from the discovery of CBD to the fight for legality, this overview is meant to help you better understand and appreciate the long road CBD took from the lab to legality.


But before we can begin to break down the history of CBD, we need to learn a little bit about where it comes from, and what was known about CBD before its official discovery.

The sun rises over a field of mature hemp plants


The history of hemp in America

To understand the history of CBD, first let’s look at the history of hemp.


Cannabis has been around for a very long time, and it has been used in a medicinal capacity in some form since as far back as 2727 BC. But in the English-speaking world, it’s been grown mainly for its fiber. “Hemp,” which is the Old English word for the cannabis plant, therefore came to denote cannabis grown for that purpose rather than for intoxication or medicine.


Hemp was a cash crop in the American colonies, and after the Revolution, it was crucial to the economies of states like Virginia and Georgia. Even one of the first drafts of the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper! And for over a century, this widespread hemp growing continued. But from there, the history of hemp in America gets somewhat complicated.


After the turn of the 20th century, some activist groups sought to outlaw marijuana, the intoxicating type of cannabis bred for high THC content. However, all hemp production in America eventually became a target. This was a result of the outright lies and racist propaganda spread by things like the infamous Reefer Madness film as well as the inaccurate belief that there is no difference between marijuana and hemp.


This led to the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which meant that only hemp that had been taxed and approved by the government could be grown or sold. And it was just after 1937 that CBD made its first appearance.

An amber drop of CBD oil gets ready to fall

History of CBD: The early years

Even though hemp was now behind the wall of a tax stamp, it was still available widely enough for researchers to continue testing and researching the plant in an attempt to unlock what makes it so versatile.


Because of this continued research, an Illinois University research team led by Harvard grad Roger Adams was able to isolate the CBD compound – although they didn’t know what exactly they had found at the time.


But even so, the fact that they successfully singled out a new cannabinoid was a turning point in the history of hemp research. It was a massive step towards being able to test compounds individually and truly understand what they are capable of.


This exciting discovery led to increased research into cannabinoids, and just six years after the discovery of cannabidiol, Dr Walter Loewe and his team began testing CBD and THC on mice and rabbits to observe the effects.


These tests laid the groundwork for how cannabinoid testing would be conducted for years to come, and they also began to officially document the things that these compounds were capable of.


However, due to the limitations of the equipment at that time, these effects weren’t able to be fully unearthed. The main takeaways from Dr. Loewe’s experiments were that THC was the primary “excitant,” and that CBD provided a lack of effects in contrast.


And that view of CBD remained for nearly 20 years until a breakthrough discovery in the 1960s turned our understanding of cannabis on its head.

A frame of a WW2 era film entitled Hemp for Victory in black and white with hemp rope

CBD makes a name for itself

After the United States ended the “Hemp for Victory” campaign it employed during World War II, hemp crops and cannabis research in America were essentially non-existent. The history of CBD in America was at a standstill. Fortunately, that didn’t stop scientists in other countries from making headlines.


After realizing that, while the active ingredients in both cocaine and morphine (common medicines throughout history) had been isolated nearly 100 years prior, no work had been done to truly isolate and understand what made cannabis work the way it does, Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam dove headfirst into making it happen.


And in 1964, he had his first breakthrough. Mechoulam and his team not only separated the CBD compound from the rest, but they also defined its structure and chemical composition. They also completed the same process with the psychoactive compound THC, which allowed them to closely analyze both compounds and study their differences.


This initial discovery led Mechoulam’s team to take a page from Dr. Loewe’s book and cannabinoid testing soon began on primates, the closest living relatives to humans, in order to see exactly what each compound does.


The results of these tests proved that THC was the intoxicating compound in cannabis, and more importantly, they set the stage for research into CBD as a non-intoxicating form that nonetheless has some beneficial effects.


Because of these groundbreaking discoveries, Raphael Mechoulam is often considered the “Godfather of Cannabis,” and for good reason. If he had not taken the initiative, the history of CBD oil might still be in its dark ages.


While researchers in Israel were making waves with their cannabis studies, lawmakers in America were talking about cannabis as well, but their announcement wasn’t as well received by the cannabis community.


As an extension of Nixon’s “war on drugs,” the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) was an attempt to classify drugs according to the threat they posed to public health, safety, and well-being.


According to the guidelines set forth in the CSA, the United States government considered certain drugs to have no potential medical benefits and a high potential for abuse – these were placed in the “Schedule I” classification.


Drugs in Schedule I included things like peyote, heroin, LSD, and, inexplicably, all forms of cannabis. Because of this unfair categorization, it became nearly impossible for doctors or researchers to prescribe and study something that had been considered safe and effective up until that point.


This made it difficult for scientists in America to utilize rapidly advancing technology to study the cannabis compounds that Mechoulam had finally successfully mapped, but it didn’t stop progress entirely.

A diagram of the male and female human body showing the location of CB1 and CB2 receptors

Discovery of the ECS and a breakthrough for CBD

Even after CBD, THC, and other cannabinoids were discovered to be the active compounds that contributed to the many effects of cannabis, no one was entirely sure why they worked the way they did.


But the history of CBD took another big leap forward when the first cannabinoid receptor was discovered in a mouse in 1988 by Americans Allyn Howlett and William Devane. The researchers realized that if the body had receptors for cannabinoids, then it must also naturally produce them.


This led to an increased interest in learning more about these receptors and discovering the compounds they naturally interact with, and before long, several major breakthroughs happened.


The first came two short years after the first cannabinoid receptor was discovered when Lisa Matsuda successfully cloned this receptor, allowing them to closely study how it works.


Two more years later, the Godfather of Cannabis, Raphael Mechoulam, and his associates, Lumir Hanus and William Devane, uncovered two of the major cannabinoids produced naturally by the body – anandamide and 2-AG.


Because these cannabinoids were produced within the body, Mechoulam’s team dubbed them “endocannabinoids,” since the prefix “endo” means “inside” or “within.”


After this groundbreaking discovery, CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors were found in humans, confirming that our bodies respond to cannabinoids like CBD and THC because they were designed to respond to them.


And after learning just how widespread these receptors are in our bodies, scientists decided to collectively name all of the body’s cannabinoid receptors the “endocannabinoid system” (ECS).


They also realized just how important the ECS is for regulating and reinforcing the body’s other systems and functions.


As a result of these breakthroughs, cannabis research was viewed in a new light and the history of CBD was about to go into overdrive – but it still had a few roadblocks.

A blue gloved hand holds up a clear glass bottle of amber CBD oil in front of mature hemp plants

CBD enters the mainstream

Although the discovery of the ECS and its connection to CBD was exciting to those within the cannabis industry, the social stigma surrounding cannabis use kept any real progress from being made.


However, in the mid-2000s, the story of Charlotte Figi, a Colorado infant with Dravet Syndrome (a severe epileptic disorder that affects children) tugged at the nation’s heartstrings and gave a face to the millions who could benefit from cannabis.


After trying every conventional and experimental treatment in the book, Charlotte’s parents found a grower of high-CBD, low-THC cannabis. They made an oil from it, gave it to Charlotte, and hoped for the best – and the best happened. Their daughter’s seizures dropped from 300 seizures a week to fewer than five a month after she began taking the oil.


Eventually, British biotech GW Pharmaceuticals would bring a highly purified CBD drug called Epidiolex to market for Dravet syndrome. But Charlotte’s story made many Americans see cannabis in a new light, especially the non-intoxicating varieties.


This no doubt softened politicians and voters alike to the idea of legalizing cannabis in some form and may have impacted the decision to start many of the 33 state recreational and medical marijuana programs that have been passed since then.


This turned out to be a key to the history of hemp as well as the history of CBD. In the 2014 Farm Bill, the United States Congress legally defined hemp as cannabis with no more than 0.3 percent THC content. The bill also established hemp pilot programs to research the impact on America’s economy, environment, and health.


And after the success of those programs, the 2018 Farm Bill fully legalized hemp, thus opening the doors for a wide variety of hemp-based products.


This flood of new companies is both good and bad for consumers. It’s good that it allows people to have a wide variety of options when choosing CBD, but it also makes it harder to decide which companies sell quality products and which ones are out for a quick buck.

A diagram shows the chemical composition of CBD over a mature hemp plant

The future of CBD: a new dilemma

The primary concern of CBD users is no longer potentially breaking the law. But the history of CBD is at another turning point.


This new, largely unregulated availability also makes it easier for cheap brands to push bad or unsafe products onto misinformed CBD users. Because of this, educating consumers on what to look for in a quality CBD company is one of the most important tasks facing the CBD industry today and going forward.


If we want to continue seeing CBD research and cannabis research, in general, continue to find funding and uncover new uses for this versatile plant, we’ve got to make sure that only the highest-quality, premium CBD products are getting to consumers.


Because when one company cuts corners and endangers their customers, it makes the entire industry look bad. So, to educate you on how to spot a trustworthy CBD company, here are three important aspects to consider:

1. Quality

It can be hard to assess quality on the internet, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. When trying to track down the best CBD on the market, it’s always a safe bet to go with a company that uses USA-grown hemp.


You should also read carefully to be sure that all of a company's products contain no THC, GMOs, or artificial ingredients.

A white bottle of 1500 mg CBD Oil from cbdMD sits on a counter top near an empty glass

2. Variety

There are so many different types of CBD products out there these days, why settle for a company that only sells one or two forms of CBD?


Try to find a company with a wide variety of options that allow you to mix it up and combine different methods for a whole-body CBD experience that will let you get the most out of your products.


Whether you want to combine CBD bath bombs with a melatonin-infused CBD tincture for the perfect bedtime routine, or you want to add a soreness-relieving CBD topical after a tough workout, having a variety of options to choose from is never a bad thing.

A bottle of 500 mg CBD PM softgel capsules sits on a nightstand next to a small pile of capsules

3. Transparency

It’s one thing to say you sell high-quality products, and it’s another thing entirely to prove it. That’s why the best, most trustworthy companies post a Certificate of Analysis on their websites.


This certificate proves not only that the company sent samples to a third-party lab for testing, but also that their products contain CBD and are free of pesticides, heavy metals, and THC. Look at our lab results for any product you buy and see for yourself!

Disclaimer: The cbdMD page contains general information about health, diet, lifestyle, and nutrition. Any information provided should not be considered or treated as medical advice and always consult a medical professional before making any lifestyle changes. Products and information mentioned on the cbdMD blog are not intended to be used as a substitute for medical diagnosis, advice, or treatment. Any links to third-party websites are provided as a convenience only and cbdMD is not responsible for their content.