The history of CBD: Ancient medicine, modern science

The history of CBD and cannabis

The history of cannabis is closely related to the history of human beings: since ancient times, cannabis has been used and cultivated (with evidence even in the Old Testament), so much so that it has become, for some peoples and cultures, a distinctive trait, with peculiar rites, ceremonies and customs. Over the millennia, the plant and its derivatives, have been the focus of many discoveries and innovations

In addition to this cultivation, which revolves around the processing of the products of the different varieties of hemp, prohibition, a series of legislative measures designed to control and prohibit the substance with regard to industrial, medical and recreational use, plays an important role in the history of cannabis. In this article we will take you on abreve journey through time to discover CBD in history!

Textile fibers

The cannabis plant is native to Central Asia, specifically the Indian subcontinent, although its use extends far beyond that. Archaeological findings suggest that its cultivation dates back to the end of the last Ice Age, with the emergence of agriculture 10,000-12,000 years ago. As a durable fibrous material, hemp was probably the first plant cultivated for textile fibers!

Use and history of CBD

In addition to the use of the cannabis plant for textile purposes, the extraction  of CBD from the cannabis plant has also been recorded several millennia ago. In ancient texts from Asia, the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes is first mentioned around 1500 BCE. In this early period, cannabis plants contained both CBD and low concentrations of THC (Read this article  to find out the difference between CBD and THC). However, healers of that time did not have detailed knowledge of the specific compounds in the plant. They simply employed various parts of cannabis to treat a range of ailments.

Around 200 AD, doctors in ancient China and Taiwan used cannabis as an anesthetic. Documents from that era also record the use of cannabis to treat constipation, rheumatic pains, female reproductive problems, and malaria.

References to CBD

The first direct mention of the compounds we currently recognize as CBD comes from two relevant sources around the mid-1800s.

In 1839, Irish doctor William Brooke O’Shaughnessy disclosed the results of his research on the therapeutic effects of cannabis, conducted through laboratory experiments. While not identifying specific cannabinoids, O’Shaughnessy discovered that cannabis extracts showed efficacy as analgesics and muscle relaxants.

In 1850, a review published in the American Journal of Pharmacy and Chemistry also discussed the pain-relieving effects of cannabis. This testifies to an early awareness of the medicinal benefits of compounds found in the cannabis plant.

How and when was CBD discovered?

Although hemp has been cultivated and used in many different forms by humankind for a long, long time, we did not really understand its properties until the last 100 years or so. With the advancement of biology and organic chemistry, we are now in a much better position to analyze the molecular composition of the cannabis plant, including CBD.

CBD, short for cannabidiol, was first discovered in 1940 by Roger Adams. He isolated both CBD and another cannabinoid called CBN (cannabinol) from the hemp plant and also hypothesized the existence of the psychoactive compound THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). It was not until 1964 that THC was isolated by Raphael Mechoulam, one of the leading names in cannabis science!

It was through Mechoulam’s work that stereochemia (the three-dimensional molecular shape) and properties of both CBD and THC were identified. It is also interesting to note that CBD was identified earlier than THC, probably because of the psychotropic effect of THC!

Government restrictions

Unfortunately, during the time CBD was first isolated as a compound, cannabis research and use faced constraints imposed by government authorities.

In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was introduced in the United States, which imposed heavy restrictions on all uses of cannabis. This has made CBD research extremely difficult for many decades, also contributing to widespread misunderstandings equating CBD with the psychoactive effects of THC.

In fact, it was already with Napoleon Bonaparte that the first prohibitionist regulations landed in Europe: the French general, during the Egyptian campaign in 1798, banned his soldiers from “drinking the strong liquor made by Muslims from an herb called hashish and smoking the leaves of cannabis.”

Mechoulam’s research

In the 1960s, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli scientist, made revolutionary discoveries about cannabinoids, contributing significantly to our understanding of THC and CBD.

Mechoulam’s key findings include:

  • The identification of THC as the main psychoactive compound in cannabis
  • Mapping the chemical structure of CBD
  • The discovery of the human endocannabinoid system and its interaction with cannabinoids.

Mechoulam’s groundbreaking work has laid the foundation for future cannabis research and sparked growing interest in the study of CBD’s medical properties.

CBD research in the 1970s and 1980s

In the 1970s and 1980s, studies began on the use of CBD to treat epilepsy and anxiety. A crucial 1980 study by Mechoulam and Carlini showed that CBD could reduce seizures in animals, paving the way for the use of CBD in the treatment of refractory epilepsy. Further research conducted at this time suggested that CBD could be useful in treating anxiety  without causing sedative effects, helping to further differentiate it from THC. However, cannabis research was still remarkably limited at this time.

The first CBD-based drug

In 1985, the first CBD-based pharmaceutical drug was approved in the United Kingdom. Produced by GW Pharmaceuticals, the drug, called Sativex, was administered through an oral spray.

Sativex was prescribed to treat spasticity caused by multiple sclerosis and contained a 1:1 ratio of CBD and THC. This event was a significant step in legitimizing the use of CBD in Western medicine and paved the way for future CBD-based drugs.

CBD research in the 1990s and early 2000s

Advances in CBD research experienced a significant increase in the 1990s, mainly due to discoveries related to the human endocannabinoid system In the early 1990s, researchers identified the endocannabinoid receptors distributed throughout the body. This system, now known to regulate vital functions such as mood, appetite, immune response, sleep, pain perception, and more. Understanding how cannabinoids, such as CBD, interact with this system has finally revealed their therapeutic potential. This accelerated research focused on studying CBD for numerous medical conditions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Decriminalization, legalization, liberalization

During the twentieth century, an era often referred to as the “Prohibitionist Century” ,some countries began to challenge this paradigm even before its actual end. The Netherlands‘ pioneering example dates back to 1972, when a government commission highlighted the negative aspects of cannabis criminalization, leading to the limited legalization of hashish and marijuana in so-called Coffee Shops. Portugal, while maintaining cannabis as an illegal substance, adopted legislation in 2000 that reduced personal consumption to an administrative offense. 

A major turning point occurred in Uruguay in 2013, when the government legalized marijuana, followed by the United States in 2014, where some states began legalizing it for recreational use. Canada became the first G7 country to legalize cannabis nationwide in 2018. In December 2020, the UN partially revised the classification of cannabis, following the 2019 WHO recommendations, removing it from the list of substances without therapeutic value. These developments mark a significant change in the way cannabis is viewed and regulated globally.

Legalization stimulates CBD growth
The most significant increase in CBD interest and use has occurred in the past decade. Some crucial events in the 2010s helped propel CBD to mainstream popularity:
  • The passage of state laws legalizing cannabis for medical and recreational purposes.
  • The removal of restrictions on hemp in the 2018 US farm bill.
  • FDA approval of the CBD-based drug Epidiolex in 2018.
  • The proliferation of companies in the CBD wellness sector and the widespread availability of CBD products derived from hemp.

These developments have led to a significant increase in CBD sales and widespread product availability. By 2020, the CBD market reached sales of $4.7 billion and continues to grow rapidly even today.


Encouraging your curiosity about the history of CBD, we invite you to explore our wide assortment of products on NativaCBD. Check out our selection of CBD oils, extracts, infusions and much more, and discover the benefits of this amazing compound. We are curious about the benefits of CBD in your personal story, please share your opinions and leave a review on the products you have tried! Join the NativaCBD community in continuing to explore the potential of CBD for daily well-being.

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