Published: October 12th, 2017
Cannabinoids are compounds found within the cannabis plant. They have received a lot of attention since the rise of medical marijuana and the proliferation of legalization campaigns around the world, especially in the United States.
One of the most heavily-discussed cannabinoids found in marijuana is CBD. This non-psychoactive compound has taken the world by storm as the subject of new studies looking to further explore and validate the potential of cannabis as medicine.
In this article, we take a closer look at CBD; what it is, it’s history, and how it became one of the most notable compounds within the cannabis plant.
To better understand the importance of CBD, it's helpful to have a basic understanding of the history of the cannabis plant.
Cannabis, or Cannabis sativa, is a genus of flowering plant that grows natively in many parts of the world, especially in tropical and humid areas, as well as mountainous regions. It is an extremely versatile plant which, despite being illegal throughout most of the world today, has served as an important crop throughout human history.
The earliest mentions of cannabis or hemp’s usage dates back to roughly 2300 BCE in a classic Chinese book known as the Shu King. The Chinese used cannabis to produce strong, tough fibre used to manufacture clothing and rope. They also used it as a medicine to treat a variety of conditions ranging from rheumatism to menstrual cramps.
Fragments of hemp fibre have also been found in ancient Chinese burial chambers dating back to roughly 1000 BCE. Other archaeological evidence suggests that the cultivation and use of cannabis in China dates back to 10,000 BCE, making it clear that cannabis/hemp have long been important industrial crops, despite their recent prohibition.
But the use of cannabis wasn’t unique to China. The plant has also been cultivated in India for thousands of years, where it played a particularly important role in various spiritual practices and ceremonies.
For example, cannabis is believed to be the main ingredient in soma, a traditional Vedic drink used during religious ceremonies. Hindus also often consume bhang, another type of cannabis-infused beverage, during annual festivals and celebrations.
The use of charas (commonly referred to as “finger hash”) also plays an integral role in Hindu spiritual ceremonies. The Shaiva, for example, commonly consume charas during their spiritual rituals. Many religious branches within the Indian sub-continent respect cannabis’ psychoactive effects as an important tool for meditation and other practices.
But the industrial, spiritual, and medicinal uses of cannabis don’t end there. The plant disseminated around the world and was eventually cultivated and used openly in Europe. As European nations began colonising “The New World,” cannabis accompanied them and was eventually introduced to the Americas.
In fact, even in the US, cannabis was openly prescribed as a medicine up until the 20th century, where it was often consumed in the form of tinctures. Cannabis has also been grown in other regions of the Americas, from Brazil and Chile to Paraguay, which today is one of the biggest producers of cannabis in South America and the world.
Classifying the cannabis plant is a lot more difficult than it seems. There are currently 3 known naturally-occurring variations of cannabis: sativa, indica, and ruderalis.
There is some debate on whether these varieties should be treated as 3 separate species, or 3 varieties of the same species. For the purpose of this article, we’ll treat indica, sativa, and ruderalis as 3 subspecies of the Cannabis sativa genus.
The easiest way to tell these subspecies apart is by their morphology. Sativa plants can grow extremely tall, easily reaching heights over 2m. They are usually loosely branched and have narrow, light green leaves.
Indica plants, on the other hand, grow short and bushy, often reaching maximum heights of about 1-1.3m. They are densely branched and usually have wide, dark green leaves.
Ruderalis plants, on the other hand, grow much smaller than both sativa and indica plants, rarely reaching heights over 60-70cm. They usually have small, thin stems, and large leaves. Most importantly, ruderalis plants flower based on age, rather than light exposure.
It is important to realise that all cannabis plants contain cannabinoids, albeit in different concentrations.
Indica and sativa plants typically contain high concentrations of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), a psychoactive compound known to produce the distinct “high” associated with cannabis. Ruderalis plants, on the other hand, typically have higher concentrations of CBD (cannabidiol). However, this has changed dramatically since breeders began manipulating genetics.
Cannabis breeders regularly cross different varieties to create new “strains” with distinct properties. Today, most commercially available strains are some kind of hybrid between sativa, indica, and ruderalis. Thanks to new breeding techniques, it is now also possible to find indica/sativa varieties with high CBD levels, as well as ruderalis plants with high concentrations of THC.
Cannabinoids have received a lot of attention lately, mainly because of their incredible medical potential. Although THC was of predominant interest in recent decades, CBD is now receiving the majority of attention as a medical substance.
CBD, or cannabidiol, is a compound found in the cannabis plant, comprising roughly 40% of the plant’s extract. It is non-psychoactive, meaning it doesn’t produce the kind of “high” users experience from THC.
CBD was first described in 1940 by Raphael Mechoulam, organic chemist and professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.
Mechoulam was motivated by a search to find out what components gave cannabis its unique effects, seeing that the chemistry of other drugs (like cocaine and opium) was already well understood at the time.
“I found it very surprising: while morphine had been isolated from opium and cocaine from the coca leaf, no one had studied the chemistry of the marijuana plant. It was very odd,” said Mechoulam in an interview.
Since the 1940s, our knowledge of cannabis has improved greatly, largely thanks to research conducted by Mechoulam, among others.
Today, we know that when cannabinoids like THC and CBD enter our body, they interact with our endocannabinoid system (ECS). This system mainly consists of 2 receptors (known as CB1 and CB2), although new research suggests it may involve other receptor cells as well.
The ECS is now known to be involved in a wide variety of bodily processes, and has been shown to aid in the regulation of appetite, mood, memory, as well as the sensation/management of pain.
The system is usually stimulated by endocannabinoids like anandamide or 2-AG, which are naturally produced by the body. However, when plant-based cannabinoids like CBD are present, they also interact with this system by binding to either CB1 and/or CB2 receptors and producing a variety of effects.
Since the discovery of the endocannabinoid system and cannabinoids like THC, CBD, and many more (cannabis contains over 100 different unique cannabinoids), scientists from all around the globe have tried to isolate these compounds and study/understand their effects.
Today, some of the most commonly cited cannabinoids are THC, CBD, CBN (cannabinol), CBDV (cannabidivarin), CBG (cannabigerol), and CBC (cannabichromene). However, there are many more out there.
The effects of these compounds vary greatly. CBD, for example, has been shown to be a potent:
- Anti-tumoral agent
The effects of cannabinoids also vary depending on their dosage, application, as well as the presence of other cannabinoids.
Mechoulam, for example, argues that the power of medicinal cannabis lies in “the entourage effect,” which describes the unique way cannabinoids interact with other compounds, rather than in isolation. According to this theory, cannabinoids like CBD and THC, along with terpenes, flavonoids, and other compounds, work better together than they do on their own.
The world of cannabis is vast, and while we’ve made huge progress in understanding the complexity of this plant, there is still much to learn about the potential of cannabis.
However, with changing opinions regarding the plant and increased legalization efforts, we believe it won’t be long before cannabinoids like CBD are openly adopted back into world of medicine, just like they were hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.