The History of CBD in the West [Timeline]


At the time of writing, the cannabidiol (CBD) industry is one of the fastest-growing in the health and wellness niche. It has grown exponentially within the last few years, but the cannabinoid has probably been used for thousands of years! There is evidence that the hemp plant was used in ancient Taiwan between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago.

One of the big issues when exploring the history of CBD is determining whether ancient civilizations used hemp or marijuana. In reality, they probably used both. The ancient Chinese almost certainly used hemp fiber to create their clothes, but we’re not sure when or where CBD itself became recognized for its healing properties.

It is often claimed that Emperors Fu Hsi and Shen Nung used marijuana as a medicine between 2900BC and 2700BC. However, there is no proof that either man even existed, let alone used weed or hemp!

In India, a collection of sacred Hindu texts, written between 2000BC and 1400BC, called The Vedas, outline the psychoactive properties of cannabis. Once again, distinguishing between CBD and THC is difficult. Certainly, it seems as if both plants were used widely in the Middle East and the Far East of Asia thousands of years ago; but what about the ‘West’?

The Herb Hits Europe

It has been suggested that cannabis and hemp came to Europe as early as 1500BC as it was brought to Germany, France, and Greece; although cultivation probably didn’t occur in earnest until around 800BC in Germany.

We know that the Scythians, a band of Iranian Eurasian nomads, brought hemp and possibly cannabis to Northern Europe by the 5th century BC. Herodotus wrote about how the Scythians used the plant for its psychoactive properties; apparently by throwing seeds on red hot stones and inhaling the vapors! In the 1940s, archaeologists found a gravesite in Kazakhstan of a Scythian couple buried with a leather pouch that contained cannabis seeds.

Given the Roman Empire’s expansion East, they certainly came across hemp as it attempted to expand in Asia Minor and North Africa. In 190BC, Antiochus III had to surrender Asia to the Romans after suffering defeat at the Battle of Magnesia. The Treaty of Apamea signed two years later, placed the region under the control of a client king chosen by the Romans, who operated out of Pergamon in Greece.

In the first century AD, a Greek physician by the name of Pedanius Dioscorides worked as a Roman army doctor. He traveled with various armies throughout the vast empire and studied numerous plants. In around 70 AD, he published De Materia Medica (On Medical Matters) which included details of the male and female cannabis plants. The most underrated Roman Emperor of all time, Aurelian, imposed a tax on Egyptian cannabis during his brief reign in the 270s AD.

There isn’t much evidence of wide-scale use of hemp for its healing properties during the Middle Ages. As nations such as Italy, Spain, and England tried to expand their colonies, hemp was mainly used to replace flax sails. Through bitter experience, sailors learned that flax sails started rotting after about three months as the ocean’s salty water took a heavy toll.

In contrast, hemp was far more durable and became the material of choice. It is likely that hemp was also used to create the famous triangular sails that increased the maneuverability of ships. In 1533, King Henry VIII of England ordered his nation’s landowners to set aside 0.25 acres of land for every 60 acres they owned, for hemp growth. Once again, it was nothing to do with CBD; instead, Henry wanted material for rope and sailcloth to help the navy.

In 1563, Queen Elizabeth I of England followed suit and imposed a £5 fine on any landlord who didn’t comply.

What’s interesting is the finding by the South African Journal of Science, which suggests that William Shakespeare used hemp or marijuana. It reviewed samples of residues from tobacco pipes found in Shakespeare’s home town during his lifetime. Indeed, several pipes were found in the legendary writer’s garden! The researchers found marijuana in eight samples, not to mention evidence of nicotine and cocaine use!

While European plants had low levels of THC, they were still used as medicine in the 16th century. Although this is far from conclusive evidence that CBD was used as medicine 500 years ago, it seems likely. In 1538, William Turner praised the healing powers of the plant in A New Herball.

Pietro Andrea was an Italian botanist in the 16th century, and he also wrote of the herb’s therapeutic effects. In 1649, Nicholas Culpeper, an English herbalist, included such accounts in A Physicall Directory. In the tome, he wrote about how the plant, and its seeds and roots, were used to treat an array of conditions including parasites, gout, colic, jaundice, and even flatulence!

Hemp & Cannabis Reach the New World

The hemp plant was widely cultivated in Britain by the 17th century, so it is no surprise that British colonists took it with them as they traveled to the Americas. The first successful settlers landed at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. There had been an attempt to found Roanoke Colony in 1584, but it was abandoned within six years.

In 1619, there was a Virginia Assembly held in London, which decreed that all colonists in Virginia were required to grow hemp and flax. Once again, it was a case of growing the crop for use as a material rather than for its healing properties. Despite a myriad of incentives and punishments for non-compliance, hemp cultivation never took off as the British had hoped.

However, hemp was used to treat medical conditions during the 18th century in colonial America. In 1753, Carl Linnaeus gave weed the name ‘Cannabis Sativa.’ In 1783, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck discovered a second species of cannabis which he called Indica.

According to the diary entries of the First President of the United States, George Washington, he grew hemp at his plantation in Mount Vernon from 1745 to 1775. There is some disagreement as to whether he grew high-THC weed or hemp with a higher CBD content. The farming diaries of Thomas Jefferson also show that he briefly grew hemp in the 1770s and early 1780s.

The invention of the cotton gin ensured that hemp cultivation in North America slowed down significantly during the 19th century. Meanwhile, Napoleon brought his French army to Egypt in the late 1790s and noted that the Muslim locals smoked the seeds of hemp, and also made a drink from the plant. Napoleon eventually banned the use of it.

In 1839, William O’Shaughnessy published a study on the therapeutic effects of cannabis. Three years later, he gave hashish to a British pharmacist called Peter Squire, who created a tincture from it, which included high-proof alcohol. He patented the tincture and called it Squire’s Extract which was sold in Europe and the Americas. Perhaps we can say that Squires is the father of the CBD or cannabis oil tincture!

The plant was widely used as a medicine in Europe and North America during the 19th century. It is even alleged that the British monarch, Queen Victoria, used the herb to treat menstrual pains! The main evidence here is that her personal physician, Sir Robert Russell, wrote extensively about the plant and recommended its use for menstrual cramps.

Incidentally, cannabis was included in the Third Edition of the United States Pharmacopoeia in 1851. Both hemp and marijuana were extremely popular until racial prejudice spelled the end. The plants were demonized by association with Mexican immigrants and African-Americans. The 1937 Marihuana Tax Act outlawed marijuana and hemp; it was no longer legal to sell, use, or grow either plant in the United States.

In the next few decades, the U.S. used its power to persuade other nations to follow their lead. By the middle of the 20th century, hemp and marijuana were practically banned worldwide.

CBD – The Discovery

Despite being used for thousands of years, we didn’t know a great deal about hemp or marijuana until fairly recently. In fact, the first discovery of an individual cannabinoid wasn’t made until 1940. Finally, Robert S. Cahn reported the partial structure of CBN, Cannabinol.

In 1942, an American chemist named Roger Adams isolated cannabidiol (CBD). History had been made as it was the first successful isolation of a cannabinoid. It would be more than two decades before THC was isolated. In 1963, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam identified CBD’s stereochemistry; he did the same for THC within a year.

Unfortunately, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 ensured that marijuana, hemp, and all their cannabinoids, remained illegal under federal law. The failed War on Drugs also began at this time and imposed heavy prison sentences on individuals for mere possession of the herb. The prohibited status of hemp and marijuana made it tough to analyze individual cannabinoids.

In 1973, Oregon got the ball rolling by decriminalizing cannabis use. Mechoulam took advantage of the fact that he lived in Israel and had a bit more freedom to study the cannabis plant than his American counterparts.

In a 1978 study, he gave 300mg of CBD daily to a group of eight volunteers with epilepsy. Within four months, half of the group stopped having seizures while the rest had a decrease in seizure frequency. It was a significant breakthrough, but the legal status of marijuana meant the study received little coverage. In the same year, New Mexico passed the Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act, which legally recognized weed’s medicinal value.

CBD in the Modern Era

In the early 1990s, Dr. Lisa Matsuda is often believed to be the first to discover the Endocannabinoid System (ECS). Certainly, she was the first to describe the structure and function of CB1, the cannabinoid receptor. The CB2 receptor was discovered soon after and recently, a potential third receptor, called GPR55, has been discovered.

The BIG breakthrough for CBD (and THC) occurred in 1996 when California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medicinal use. Within four years, another seven states followed and today, there are 33 states plus D.C. that allow medicinal cannabis use, and 11 of these states, plus D.C., also allow recreational use.

However, both hemp and marijuana remained federally illegal. In 2006, Charlotte Figi was born with a rare condition called Dravet’s Syndrome, which is a form of epilepsy that causes hundreds of seizures each week. After trying every traditional medicine around, Charlotte’s parents tried CBD when their daughter was five years old. To their amazement, it worked almost immediately and reduced the number of seizures to a handful per month.

The Farm Bill of 2018 legalized the cultivation of industrial hemp in the United States. It was effectively a tacit admission that the plant has a huge array of uses, including as an alternative medicine. As a result, CBD is freely available in the majority of states, except South Dakota and Nebraska at the time of writing. CBD is also legal in a growing number of countries around the world, who finally realize the value of the hemp plant.

Final Thoughts on the History of CBD

It has taken a long time, but CBD – the most abundant non-intoxicating compound in marijuana, which is also contained in large amounts in hemp – is widely available. Already, it is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and the Farm Bill is effectively a government seal of approval.

The rapid growth of CBD makes it easy to forget that it is still a market in its relative infancy. Experts continue to warn us about the ‘Wild West’ nature of an industry that is still poorly regulated. It is easy to purchase CBD online, and well-known stores such as 711 and Neiman Marcus now sell it over the counter.

Until tighter controls are put in place, we recommend thoroughly vetting each CBD company you are considering using. A quick and easy way to do this is by checking Marijuana Break to see if the brand in question has already been reviewed by us. Research is ongoing, but it appears as if CBD may have some medical value; although it may work best as one of several cannabinoids in what is known as the ‘entourage effect.’