If you’re just learning about CBD and its health and wellness benefits, it may surprise you to learn about the long history of medical research and knowledge related to CBD and other cannabinoids.

Ancient history shows some evidence that CBD was used to treat illnesses even thousands of years ago. The earliest recorded use was in 2737 BC in China. It was prepared as a tea, and used to treat constipation, gout, malaria, rheumatism, disorders of the female reproductive system, and poor memory.

The popularity of medical cannabis spread through trade and travel to other nations and the medicinal uses grew. By 1000 BC, medicinal uses in India included several uses:

THE PLANT WAS USED FOR INNUMEROUS FUNCTIONS, SUCH AS: ANALGESIC (NEURALGIA, HEADACHE, TOOTHACHE), ANTICONVULSANT (EPILEPSY, TETANUS, RABIES), HYPNOTIC, TRANQUILIZER (ANXIETY, MANIA, HYSTERIA), ANESTHETIC, ANTI-INFLAMMATORY (RHEUMATISM AND OTHER INFLAMMATORY DISEASES), ANTIBIOTIC (TOPICAL USE ON SKIN INFECTIONS, ERYSIPELAS, TUBERCULOSIS), ANTIPARASITE (INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL WORMS), ANTISPASMODIC (COLIC, DIARRHEA), DIGESTIVE, APPETITE STIMULANT, DIURETIC, APHRODISIAC OR ANAPHRODISIAC, ANTITUSSIVE AND EXPECTORANT (BRONCHITIS, ASTHMA).

(ZUARDI, 2006)

Medicinal uses of cannabis reached Africa and the Middle East around 1000 AD, and eventually it came to the Americas.

CANNABIS SCIENTISTS

While historical artifacts suggest there was medical cannabis in many places around the world much earlier, documented medical research only dates back to the mid-1800s. The first known publication on the subject came in 1839 by William O’Shaughnessy, an Irish physician and researcher working in India.

Dr. O’Shaughnessy completed a series of research studies testing various cannabis extracts and different preparations on animals, children, and patients with different ailments. While his research was controversial for the time (for different reasons than it would be controversial today), he mainly found uses of cannabis as an anesthetic and for treating rheumatic diseases, tetanus, and rabies.

Along the same timeline, Jacques-Joseph Moreau, a French psychiatrist, was learning about the use of cannabis from his international travels escorting psychiatry patients through Arab nations. Dr. Moreau began his own self-experiments with different cannabis preparations in Paris around 1840. He published his findings in 1845, writing about the use of cannabis in studying mental illness.

THE DISCOVERY OF CBD AND OTHER CANNABINOIDS

It was nearly a full century after these early documented experiments that research technology advanced far enough to actually study cannabinoids, the individual chemical compounds found in cannabis plants. The first individual cannabinoid, cannabinol (CBN), was discovered in the early 1930s by Robert Cahn, a British chemist.

In the early 1940s, Robert Adams, an American chemist invented a process to isolate individual cannabinoids; this included both CBN and cannabidiol (CBD). He won a patent for his method in 1942 and eventually also identified tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the main cannabinoid with psychoactive effects).

Later research led to the belief that CBN is produced from THC as a cannabis plant ages. The early 1940s research findings of Dr. S. Loewe, in the Department of Pharmacology at Cornell University Medical School, reported that both CBN and THC produced psychoactive effects in research animals, while CBD produced none. CBN was found to have much lower potency than THC and be less effective as a psychotropic agent.

While CBN’s lower potency has made it a less popular cannabinoid, modern research on CBN indicates several potential medical uses: antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, anti-convulsant, appetite stimulation, stem cell activation for bone healing and growth, and as a treatment for glaucoma and lung cancer.

Decades after Adams and Loewe conducted those original studies, Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli chemist, used even further advanced technology to first isolate THC directly from a cannabis plant in 1964.This is where the historical timeline gets a bit muddy. How did Adams and Loewe do research on a substance that hadn’t been identified?

Depending on what source you consult, both Adams and Mechoulam may individually be credited with discovering THC.

Here’s what really happened: early researchers had significantly less knowledge of cannabinoids, including their structures and compositions. Knowing that psychoactive effects resulted from cannabis use, Adams set out to find a cannabinoid with psychoactive properties.

While he never actually isolated THC from cannabis, Adams did manage to synthesize THC in the lab by continually adjusting the molecular structure of other cannabinoids. Later, Mechoulam was able to isolate THC using advances in medical technology. Thus, Mechoulam is the person who officially identified and named THC. Mechoulam is still active today, which may also be part of the reason he is often the first researcher named in connection to cannabis science.

CANNABINOID EFFECTS: WEIGHING THE POSITIVES AND NEGATIVES

This simplified timeline of medicinal cannabis use and the discovery of CBD and other cannabinoids only tells one portion of a much larger story. Throughout history, cannabis has also been used in two additional ways: (1) as a natural resource to create fibers for ropes, materials, and papers; and (2) as a recreational drug for its psychoactive properties.

Due to this latter use, cannabis has also historically been hotly debated and stigmatized. There has never been a time of complete agreement that the therapeutic benefits of cannabis outweigh the intoxicating effects.

While our ancient ancestors were using cannabis for medical purposes, and thus receiving the benefits of CBD, they were also prone to the psychoactive effects attributed to THC. The potential health benefits could not be divorced from the psychoactive properties. In fact, the early cannabis and cannabinoid researchers mentioned above all had their work met with questions and opposition as the stigma of recreational cannabis use loomed large.

Advances in medical research have now moved us beyond this rudimentary debate. The understanding of CBD’s lack of psychotropic activity and the ability to effectively isolate CBD from other cannabinoids is a gamechanger. It allows us to access the positive health and wellness outcomes of CBD without the euphoric effects of THC or CBN.

It also allows knowledge of CBDs uses and benefits to continually advance, as researchers can test the effectiveness of CBD as a treatment for various illnesses and ailments. As this knowledge base has grown, so has the cultural acceptance of medical cannabis. Uruguay was the first country to legalize cannabis use for citizens aged 18 and up. It has since been legalized in several other countries, including Canada as well as many places in the United States.

THE FUTURE OF CANNABINOIDS

As interest in the benefits of cannabinoids grows, research on the different types and uses of cannabinoids continues to increase. The future of this research suggests a few trends for the future of cannabinoid use and production.

There have been more than 100 different cannabinoids identified, and none of them have been fully explored in terms of their potential effects and benefits on humans.

Continued research will help us all learn more about the best-known cannabinoids, like CBD and THC, but also about the lesser-known cannabinoids that have shown potential health benefits like CBN and CBG

Two potential problems have arisen with the desire to continue medical research on cannabinoids: it’s inconsistent and it’s costly.

Inconsistency comes from the lack of regulation on cannabis production and the fact that changes in the production (like the strand of cannabis or the age of the plant) can significantly alter the types and quantity of different cannabinoids and terpenes.

Because it’s so difficult to ensure the consistent availability and potency of desired cannabinoids, the future will likely see more scientifically manufactured cannabis products.

Manufactured products will not only make it easier to control the number of cannabinoids, but to develop products that target specific needs and ailments.

The “costly” nature of cannabinoid production is both financial and environmental. From a financial view, the process of isolating cannabinoids directly from cannabis plants is a time-consuming process of growing a plant to the proper maturity and then relying on the skills, knowledge, and equipment of well-trained researchers.

Environmentally, mass cannabis cultivation has many negative consequences. The process of farming cannabis, regardless of whether it’s indoor or outdoor, draws heavily on water and energy supplies. Outdoor methods often introduce harmful pesticides to local watersheds and wildlife.

Scientists are answering this problem by finding environmentally-friendly ways to produce both cannabis and cannabinoids. Special irrigation and watering systems are reducing water consumption, while solar panels and wind energy are reducing energy consumption.

Unique methods of producing cannabinoids are on the rise. In addition to finding ways to synthesize different cannabinoids, promising work is being done to produce cannabinoids directly from yeast–a process that greatly reduces the cost of cannabinoids.

With these possibilities, the future of cannabinoid production and use looks bright. Cannabis and cannabinoid products are set to become more readily available, kinder to the environment, and more affordable. A triple win.