Industrial hemp, from which CBD is derived, is a plant with a rich and storied history that ties in with cannabis legislation and the effect that has had on the progress of the CBD movement. Hemp was not always the outlawed “weed” that it has been for most of the 20th century in the United States. In fact, it was a widely used, important crop before the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 all but phased it out. Industrial hemp is one of the first plants that civilization leaned on heavily for usable fiber. Hemp is so versatile that it can be refined to make clothes, paper, textiles, oil, food, fuel, rope, medicines, animal feed, insulation, paint, and bioplastics.

Here’s a partial timeline of noteworthy hemp facts:

  • The use of hemp dates back about 10,000 years. Use of hemp cord in pottery was identified at an ancient village site in the area of modern-day Taiwan dating back to around 8,000 BC. Evidence of hemp cultivation at this period makes hemp one of the oldest known agricultural crops.
  • Evidence exists that cannabis seeds and oil were used for food in ancient China—this dates back to 6,000 BC.
  • In 4,000 BC, textiles made of hemp were used in China and Turkistan.
  • 2,737 BC marks the first recorded use of cannabis as medicine by Chinese emperor Shen Neng. The Emperor prescribed cannabis tea for a variety of illnesses, among them gout, malaria, rheumatism, and poor memory.
  • 2,000-800 BC: Bhang (dried cannabis leaves, seeds, and stems) is mentioned in the sacred Hindu text Atharvaveda (Science of Charms) as “sacred grass,” one of the five sacred plants of India. It was used medicinally and ceremonially.
  • 1,500 BC: Cannabis is cultivated for food and fiber in China. In Scythia, cannabis is cultivated to yield hemp cloth.
  • 600 BC: Hemp rope appears in southern Russia.
  • 500 BC: A leather pouch containing cannabis seeds is discovered among the burial offerings of a Scythian couple. An urn containing cannabis leaves and seeds is also discovered near modern Berlin and is dated to roughly the same time. Findings suggest that hemp was introduced to Northern Europe by the Scythians.
  • 430 BC: Esteemed ancient Greek historian Herodotus reports on ritual and recreational cannabis use by the Scythians in The Histories.
  • 200 BC: Hemp rope appears in Greece. The Chinese Book of Rites mentions hemp fabric.
  • 100 BC: Evidence is shown that hemp paper was invented in China at this time.
  • 100 AD: Imported hemp rope appears in what is now England.
  • 570 AD: French queen Arnegunde is buried with hemp cloth.
  • 850 AD: Vikings carry hemp rope and seeds to Iceland.
  • 900 AD: Arabs learn techniques for making hemp paper.
  • 1000: Hemp rope appears on Italian ships. Also during this time and in the coming decades, the use of cannabis as medicine and for recreation spreads across the Middle East, Europe, and Africa.
  • 1271-1295: Marco Polo’s journeys bring more European attention to cannabis.
  • 1533: King Henry VIII fines farmers if they do not raise hemp for industrial use.
  • 1600: England begins to import hemp from Russia.
  • 1606-1632: The French and British cultivate cannabis for hemp at colonies in Port Royal, Virginia, and Plymouth.
  • 1616: Settlers in Jamestown begin to grow hemp for use in rope, sails, and clothes.
  • 1776: Kentucky begins to grow hemp. From 1800 onward, cannabis plantations flourished in several states.
  • 1840: Medicinal preparations with a cannabis base are used. In 1850, cannabis is added to the U.S. Pharmacopoeia. Until the early 20th century, cannabis as medicine was widely used throughout the United States and could be purchased in pharmacies and general stores.
  • 1910: The Mexican Revolution brings an influx of Mexican immigrants to the United States. They introduce the recreational use of marijuana to American society (instead of its medicinal use).
  • 1914: The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act defines the nonmedical use of opium, morphine, and coca-based drugs as a crime punishable by law. This was the first federal law criminalizing drug use and is often cited as the first salvo in America’s long and difficult “war on drugs.”
  • 1916: United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) chief scientists Jason L. Merrill and Lyster H. Dewey created paper made from hemp pulp and declared it “favorable in comparison with those used with pulp wood” in USDA Bulletin 404. Hemp was shown to be a more efficient and environmentally friendly source for paper products; however this never caught on due to other American interests and the growing conflict against cannabis.
  • 1915-1927: Cannabis prohibition spreads across the United States, starting with California.
  • 1936: Reefer Madness, an American propaganda film, is released. Its intention is to scare people away from cannabis.
  • 1937: The Marijuana Tax Act passes, criminalizing cannabis—marijuana, hemp, medical, recreational, all of it. Opposing this, Dr. William C. Woodward, testifying for the American Medical Association (AMA), told Congress, “The American Medical Association knows of no evidence that marijuana is a dangerous drug,” and warned that prohibition “loses sight of the fact that future investigation may show that there are substantial medical uses for cannabis.” He was ignored. Thus began the outlawing of cannabis cultivation—of hemp!—in the United States.
  • 1941: Cannabis is officially removed from the U.S. Pharmacopoeia. Its medicinal use ceases to be recognized. Around this time, it is said that Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company had been experimenting with alternative fuels, and built a hemp-fueled, hemp-bodied prototype car!
  • 1942: The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II halted hemp importation from the Philippines. Although American farmers were prohibited from growing hemp, the U.S. government released a film called Hemp for Victory to motivate farmers to grow the crop for the war effort. The government formed a private company called War Hemp Industries to subsidize cultivation, and a million acres of hemp were grown across the Midwest at this time. As soon as the war was over, the hemp industry again disappeared.
  • 1970: The Controlled Subtances Act classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 controlled substance—the most dangerous classification—along with heroin and other hard drugs. Ironically, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) is formed that same year.
  • 2014: Barack Obama signs the Farm Bill (aka the Agricultural Act of 2014). Section 7606, “Legitimacy of Industrial Hemp Research,” authorized state departments of agriculture and educational institutions in states that have legalized hemp cultivation to grow the crop again, for research and pilot programs only. Since then, over 30 states have passed laws in favor of industrial hemp. However, commercial production is still prohibited under federal law.
  • 2015: The Industrial Hemp Farming Act, a bipartisan bill that allows cultivation and processing of hemp in the United States, was introduced in both the House and Senate. If passed, this bill will remove all restrictions on hemp and declassify it as a controlled substance. To date, the bill hasn’t been passed.

Controversial or not, recent years have seen a boom in the hemp industry as it has become increasingly prevalent in many health and food supplements, and is now understood to be the richest source of CBD when cultivated to that end. Hemp Business Journal estimates that hemp-based product sales in the United States could reach $1.8 billion by 2020. Passing the Industrial Hemp Farming Act and allowing for cultivation of hemp in the United States could be a significant boost to the country’s agricultural economy.

So… what about CBD? When did CBD come into play, and how?

As we have seen, the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes dates back thousands of years. It seems to have reached the West in the 18th century—Carl Linnaeus classified Cannabis Sativa L. in 1753. It’s likely that CBD was an aspect of many of the oldest cannabis preparations, but CBD as an individual compound was not singled out until fairly recently. Prior to the mid-20th century, our knowledge of the active ingredients in cannabis was imprecise, in spite of the plant’s use history.

In 1940, scientists at the University of Illinois first isolated the compound CBD from an extract of the hemp plant. When they published their findings, they admitted that they still had far to go in understanding the compound. At first study, they in fact described CBD as toxic and dismissed the possibility that it could have any benefit or play any role in the human body. Today, of course, we know that this is not the case.

Another 20 years passed before a new understanding of the CBD molecule really took shape. In 1963, Raphael Mechoulam, a chemist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was able to determine the exact structure of CBD. Mechoulam and his colleagues went on to isolate THC for the first time, too, and they managed to synthesize both compounds in a lab. Mechoulam’s work opened up a new field of research around cannabis and its chemical components.

The therapeutic benefit of CBD began to spread in the 1970s. Brazilian scientists during this period were able to show that CBD could reduce or prevent convulsions caused by epilepsy in animal subjects. CBD was also explored and proven to be an anxiolytic (an anti-anxiety agent), and an effective remedy for nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. CBD was also shown to have sedative effects at this time, and studies revealed that it could help patients with insomnia. In the 1980s, further studies on CBD for epileptic convulsions continued to reveal positive effects, and it was also during this time that CBD began to be explored for its antipsychotic potential. As early as 1982, CBD was proven to inhibit psychotic symptoms like altered perception, depersonalization, and the refusal to communicate.

The biggest breakthroughs in CBD science came after the endocannabinoid system (ECS) was discovered in the early 1990s. The discovery of both endocannabinoids (cannabinoid compounds made in the body) is again credited to Raphael Mechoulam, who was working with researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) at the time, but there were many other scientists involved in the work leading up to the ECS discovery. Mechoulam was able to single out two endocannabinoid compounds and from there pieced together the workings of the ECS, and how other cannabinoids like CBD and THC interact with it. This blew the door wide open for research on the benefits of CBD.

By the end of the 1990s, NIMH researchers were able to prove that CBD was a powerful antioxidant, and that it had neuroprotective qualities, meaning that it could help to fight the degeneration of neurons, one of the effects of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Some states legalized medical cannabis during this time, and this is also when the medication Sativex was approved—a CBD/THC preparation prescribed for pain and spasms in those afflicted with multiple sclerosis. Continued research revealed CBD to be an incredible anti-inflammatory agent and calming agent, and to have beneficial effects on the immune system and various autoimmune disorders. Most of this testing was done on animal subjects, but given the strong similarities between the ECS of humans and other animals, the implied benefits are strong.

One of the most exciting developments around CBD is a study published in 2011 by scientists at the California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) Research Institute. These researchers were able to show that CBD was effective against metastasis of cancer cells. CBD as a cancer treatment, or used in conjunction with more traditional therapies for cancer, could prove to be a major breakthrough in the fight against one of the most pervasive and fatal diseases in the world today.

In spite of legal limitations, there have been around 25,000 studies released showing some kind of health benefit of CBD. As cannabis laws continue to be contested and people learn more about this “miracle molecule,” we can only hope that there will be fewer obstructions in the way of learning all we can about what CBD can do. For more specifics on various diseases, visit our Conditions page.

The Emperor Wears No Clothes, by Jack Herer




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