The History of CBD Oil in the West


CBD is now a hugely popular supplement in the Western world. In both Europe and North America, CBD is more widely used than ever before, and it is only gaining traction as time goes on. In case you were unaware, CBD is short for cannabidiol, and it is one of the many compounds found in cannabis and hemp plants.

The Cannabis sativa plant (which encompasses both marijuana and hemp) has a long history. There is evidence which suggests hemp was used in what is now Taiwan between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago.

Often, historians and archaeologists discover the most ancient cannabis fibres in the East, in places like China and India where cannabis was often written about in old texts. It is really difficult for experts to figure out whether hemp or marijuana was being used by ancient civilizations, but it is reasonable to think that both had a place in society.

So, we’re pretty certain that cannabis – and therefore CBD – had a place in the East. After all, the texts in which it is often mentioned are those relating to health and medicine, which is kind of what we use CBD for today. But what about the Western world? What history does CBD have in Britain and beyond?

The Arrival of Cannabis in Europe

Although we can never be certain, experts believe that the cannabis plant arrived in Europe as early as 1500BC. Evidence has been found in Germany, France, and Greece. It is likely that hemp plants were used in farming and nutrition. However, it probably wasn’t widespread until about 800BC in Germany.

Another problem that arises when discussing the history of CBD in the West is what counts as ‘West.’ The notions of East and West are societal concepts which do not always fit neatly into boxes. For example, there is strong evidence that a group of nomads called the Scythians were using hemp and cannabis in Northern Europe by the 5th Century BC. However, because they were nomadic, the Scythians also occupied the Middle East as well as much of Europe. As such, we’re not really sure if that counts as ‘West.’

Nevertheless, it’s certain that the Scythians were using cannabis. Herodotus wrote about the funeral rituals of the Scythians, saying that they threw cannabis seeds onto hot stones, which vaporised them for the Scythians to inhale. He said that, “The Scythians, transported by the vapour, shout aloud.” Herodotus’ ancient text was verified in the 1900s, when archaeologists discovered a Scythian gravesite where a couple had been buried with cannabis seeds.

The Romans will have definitely encountered cannabis, too, having come into contact with it as they expanded into parts of Asia and Africa. In fact, Roman Emperor Aurelian imposed a tax on cannabis in Egypt during his brief reign over the region in the 270s AD.

The Greeks had discovered cannabis, too. There are various texts about cannabis use in ancient Greece, including one by a physician named Pedanius Dioscorides. He worked as an army doctor for the Romans in the first century, travelling around the empire and documenting many plants that were used for medical purposes. In his publication De Materia Medica (On Medical Matters), Dioscorides made mention of both male and female cannabis plants.

So, what about Britain? It’s pretty certain that Western Europe was using hemp in the Middle Ages. The plant was employed for use as a textile as the people built their ships. Flax sails had previously been used, but were often damaged at sea; hemp’s more durable nature made it perfect for sailing.

In 1533, King Henry VIII of England made it law that all landowners had to set aside 0.25 acres of land for every 65 acres they owned. On this 0.25 acres, hemp was to be grown. This was to help the navy through producing more hemp for the sales. Later, in 1563, Queen Elizabeth I of England imposed a £5 tax for those who did not comply with this law.

But really, all this says nothing about CBD. Hemp plants were mainly used in Western Europe for textiles and construction; nothing to do with health. However, the South African Journal of Science recently discovered that pipes found in the garden of William Shakespeare actually contained traces of cannabis. Again, we don’t know if this was hemp or marijuana, and we will probably never know.

Hemp was more common in Europe, which means most plants had a low level of THC. Nevertheless, sometimes it was used for medicinal purposes. A few physicians throughout Europe wrote about the therapeutic effects of the cannabis plant. To be honest, some of the findings of these physicians was pretty out there – Nicholas Culpeper wrote that cannabis could be used to treat flatulence! Nevertheless, these curious scientists were onto something, at least; without really knowing it, they had figured out the presence of CBD.

Hemp Spreads Toward the Americas

Hemp was pretty widespread in Britain by the 17th Century, and of course, it was actually law to grow it. As a result, British colonizers took it to America when they set out to find the New World. The first successful settlement was at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.

In 1619, a Virginia Assembly was hosted in London, which decreed that hemp and flax had to be grown by all colonists in Virginia. Similarly to its uses in Britain, hemp was to be used as a textile. Sadly, it never took off the way it had in Britain, and many people didn’t cultivate it in America.

In the 18th Century, things changed a little when Carl Linnaeus attributed a scientific name to cannabis. He called it Cannabis sativa L, with the L standing for Linnaeus. While Linnaeus’ finding occurred in 1753, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck found another species in 1783 which he called Cannabis indica.

Hemp was grown by some pretty famous figures over the years. George Washington’s diary reveals that he grew hemp at his Mount Vernon plantation for a while, and Thomas Jefferson also wrote that he briefly grew hemp in the 1770s and 1780s.

In the 19th Century, some findings indicate people discovering other uses for hemp. William O’Shaughnessy published a study in 1839 which detailed some of the therapeutic effects of cannabis. In 1832, he administered hashish to a British pharmacist named Peter Squire, who made it into a tincture using high-proof alcohol. He sold this cannabis tincture in both Europe and the Americas – was this the start of CBD oil?!

Throughout this century, cannabis was more widely used. In fact, there is a rumour that Queen Victoria used it to ease menstrual cramps! The Queen’s personal physician, Sir Robert Russell, wrote about cannabis’ use for menstrual symptoms extensively.

Sadly, things went downhill from there. Throughout the 1800s, cotton became more popular and widely grown. And then, racial prejudice entered the picture. Moving into the 20th Century, propaganda began to associate cannabis use with Mexican immigrants and African-Americans. People turned against it, and of course, cotton companies also backed the prohibition of hemp; it quite suited them.

In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act outlawed cannabis in the United States. Britain had banned it in 1928, but it wasn’t outlawed until 1971. By the end of the 20th century, the power of both of these countries had led to an almost global ban on the cannabis plant. That’s until things began to shift.

The Discovery of CBD

With the ban of cannabis in place (all thanks to racial tension), studying the plant became extremely difficult. Nevertheless, some cunning scientists managed to obtain rights to carry out studies, and slowly we are revealing more about this plant.

In the year 1940, Robert S. Cahn discovered the partial structure of CBN (cannabinol). This was the first mention of a cannabinoid. Two years later, in 1942, Roger Adams isolated CBD for the first time. And then the breakthroughs stopped.

It took over two decades for the next step of progress. In 1963, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam made two feats: He identified CBD’s stereochemistry, and he isolated THC for the first time. Working from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Dr. Mechoulam is very respected in the cannabis research industry to this day. Much research about the plant is actually conducted in Israel.

In the 1970s, various acts came into law which continued the ban on cannabis. In Britain, cannabis was put onto a Controlled Substances list which meant that heavy fines and prison sentences could be used for possession, sale and use of cannabis. This restriction made it even harder to study the plant and has hindered progress significantly.

Scientists must jump through hoops to try and study cannabinoids. It costs a lot of time and money, and many just don’t bother. Luckily, scientists in places like Israel have more freedom in this field and can explore the plant much better. Slowly, more information is coming to light about CBD and its potential uses.

Where is CBD Now?

Recently, there have been several changes. Despite it being difficult to study cannabis, some pioneering scientists are trying their hardest. And as more information has surfaced, changes in the law have been made.

Over in America, several states began to legalise cannabis for medicinal uses, utilising both the CBD and THC in the plant. Now, a majority of states at least have it legalised for medicinal use. The plant remains federally illegal, but in 2018, the Farm Bill made hemp legal throughout the country. Some states have resisted, but this is a positive step since hemp cannot be used as a drug.

In the UK, meanwhile, you are allowed to grow hemp with a license from the Home Office. It is not too widely grown, even though the UK is the world’s largest exporter of legal cannabis. There’s a lot of hypocrisy here, with UK residents not being allowed to use hemp while Victoria Atkins’ (the former Minister of Drugs) husband profits from the sale of cannabis abroad. Theresa May’s husband also has shares in GW Pharmaceuticals, the company which is licensed to produce synthetic cannabinoid drugs such as Sativex.

Obviously, this is a problem. The public, or at least those in the know, are angry about the status of hemp and CBD. It became even more of a problem when Billy Caldwell, a young boy with epilepsy, was denied his cannabis-based medication even though it was the only thing that helped him. As outrage swelled, the government changed its stance.

Sajid Javid implemented a review of cannabis for medicinal use, and the plant’s status was slightly altered. Technically, cannabis can now be prescribed on the NHS, but the regulation is extremely vague and doctors are very hesitant to prescribe it. Although the new law came into effect in October 2018, nobody has yet received a working prescription.

CBD is thankfully legal now. Whereas before it was a bit of a grey area, the MHRA now allows the sale of CBD food supplements that contain less than 0.3% THC. The industry is absolutely huge now, and sales are only increasing as time goes by. Whatever the confusing status of the plant, CBD itself is entering a new era.

Final Thoughts on the History of CBD

CBD has come a long way in the West. It has been used widely across the world for centuries, even if somewhat unwittingly. When ancient physicians and scientists wrote about the therapeutic effects of the hemp plant, they were really talking about cannabinoids like CBD.

With a brief interlude of prohibition, CBD is now legal for sale and use in the United Kingdom. It is also allowed in many American states, although not all. Research is continuing to unfold and shed more light on the situation, so stay tuned to keep up to date with all the latest.

For now, if you wish to buy CBD you should remember that the market is not regulated. Be careful when buying CBD products to ensure that they are safe and legal; if you have any doubts, follow our top tips for buying CBD oil online. If you prefer brick and mortar shops, then you can now grab CBD oil in Holland & Barrett, Boots, and Lloyds Pharmacies. See, it really has come a long way!


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