The Rich History of CBD: From Ancient Remedy to a Modern Trend

By | Updated on October 30, 2023

Evidence Based 13

CBD oil and other CBD products have been a leading health & wellness trend since 2018. But how did we get here? 

The truth is humans have been using CBD for thousands of years as part of cannabis. It was only the 20th-century prohibition of marijuana that interrupted this practice.

Read on for a closer look at the rich history of CBD and cannabis, how it became popular, and where it’s going next. But first, here’s a timeline of key developments:

  • 2700 BC: First recorded use of cannabis as medicine in Chinese pharmacopeia.
  • 1839: Irish physician William O’Shaughnessy discovers cannabis in India and re-introduces its medical use to the West.
  • 1937: United States initiates cannabis prohibition with the Marijuana Tax Act.
  • 1940: Dr. Roger Adams isolates CBD for the first time.
  • 1963: Dr. Raphael Mechoulam determines CBD’s chemical structure.
  • 1990s: Researchers discover the human endocannabinoid system.
  • 1996: California becomes the first state to legalize medical cannabis, starting a trend.
  • 2012: Colorado and Washington become the first states to legalize recreational cannabis.
  • 2013: The story of Charlotte Figi, a girl with intractable epilepsy, popularizes CBD thanks to a CNN documentary.
  • 2014: Farm Bill allows limited hemp cultivation.
  • 2018: Farm Bill legalizes hemp federally, fueling CBD industry growth. The same year, FDA approves Epidiolex, the first CBD drug.

History of Cannabis

Alongside THC, CBD is one of the two main active compounds in cannabis, so its history starts with the plant. Cannabis has been used medicinally for millennia.

The earliest recorded use of cannabis as medicine dates back to the 2700 BC Chinese pharmacopeia Pen Ts’ao Ching attributed to Emperor Shen Nung (1). The book recommends cannabis for more than 100 conditions, including joint pain and malaria. 

Ancient Egyptian papyri from 1700 BC and Indian sources from a similar period also mention the medical use of cannabis, with more records continuing into Ancient Greek and Roman times.

The knowledge of cannabis disappeared from Europe for many centuries until it was rediscovered by Irish physician William O’Shaughnessy in 1839.

After visiting India and encountering cannabis, O’Shaughnessy highlighted its potential to treat various conditions and wrote a scientific text titled On the Preparations of the Indian Hemp, or Gunjah (2). 

Thanks to his work, alcohol-based cannabis tinctures became a common over-the-counter treatment in Europe for conditions including asthma, gonorrhea, rheumatism, stomach pain, migraines, inflammation, and tetanus.

Even Queen Victoria was reportedly prescribed cannabis for menstrual pain (3).

Cannabis Prohibition

Unfortunately, the early 20th century witnessed a global crackdown on cannabis. Starting with the United States in 1937, cannabis was gradually banned in many countries worldwide.

The prohibition deeply hampered research into cannabis and its constituents, like CBD, severely limiting our understanding of these compounds’ therapeutic potentials for decades.

The Discovery of CBD & Other Cannabinoids

Despite the prohibition and negative attitudes toward cannabis in the 20th century, scientists made several important discoveries: (4)

  1. 1940: Dr. Roger Adams and his team at the University of Illinois successfully isolated cannabidiol (CBD) for the first time.
  2. 1963: Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli scientist, figured out the chemical structure of CBD. This breakthrough helped researchers understand how the compound interacts with the body. He did the same thing for THC the following year.
  3. 1988: Dr. Allyn Howlett and William Devane discovered the first cannabinoid receptor in a rat’s brain. These receptors would later be identified as part of the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which plays a crucial role in our overall health. 
  4. 1990s: Scientists discover the remaining parts of the ECS: the second cannabinoid receptor and the two endocannabinoids our bodies make. 

These exciting developments helped drive renewed interest in the medical potential of cannabinoids

The Rise of CBD In the US

In 1996, California became the first US state to legalize medical cannabis, igniting a wave that spread across multiple states over the following decades. The next big step was Colorado and Washington legalizing recreational cannabis in 2012. 

But despite all the scientific and political developments, it wasn’t until the story of a young, sick girl that CBD truly gained its spotlight. That girl was Charlotte Figi, who suffered from a rare form of epilepsy called Dravet Syndrome. Charlotte was having 300 seizures a week and even had her heart stop several times, with little help from standard medication. 

In 2012, Charlotte’s mother decided to try CBD oil as an alternative seizure treatment. She contacted Colorado’s Stanley brothers, who had run a medical marijuana business since 2008. They gave her CBD oil made from a high-CBD, low-THC strain of cannabis called “Hippie’s Disappointment.” The oil kept Charlotte almost free of seizures, with the Stanley Brothers renaming the strain “Charlotte’s Web” in her honor.

The CNN documentary “Weed” captured Charlotte’s incredible story in 2013, bringing CBD oil into the spotlight. The show’s host Dr. Sanjay Gupta even reversed his stance on cannabis after meeting the girl. Although Charlotte passed away from pneumonia in 2020, her story played a big part in popularizing CBD.

Charlotte Figi with the Stanley brothers in Colorado.

Growing CBD Use and New Laws

Other families with children who have difficult-to-treat epilepsy began moving to Colorado to access CBD oil. Soon enough, some states began introducing new laws allowing patients to access CBD oil for epilepsy. One of the first was the 2014 Carly’s Law in Alabama, named after another girl with epileptic seizures. 

The same year also saw the 2014 Farm Bill allow state departments of agriculture and higher education institutions to cultivate industrial hemp for limited purposes. Hemp is the high-CBD variety of cannabis from which most CBD products are sourced.

The Birth of the CBD Industry

Around this time, the first companies selling CBD oil, like PlusCBD and NuLeaf Naturals, began to appear in the United States. The Stanley brothers also created their own CBD brand called Charlotte’s Web in 2014, which has since grown into the largest CBD company in the country. 

More and more people began using CBD. Then in 2015, the DEA made it easier for clinical researchers to study CBD. Finally, the 2018 Farm Bill made hemp federally legal across the United States, leading to an explosion of new CBD companies. From this point on, there was no stopping CBD.

That same year, the FDA approved the first pharmaceutical CBD drug called Epidiolex for treating rare types of epilepsy.

CBD Today

Since 2018, CBD has gained mainstream popularity and is now used by millions of people worldwide, particularly in the United States, Europe, Canada, and Australia. The global market for CBD was valued at about $18.5 billion in 2022 and is expected to grow to $59.4 billion by 2030.

What started as CBD oil is now available in myriad forms, including capsules, gummies and other edibles, topicals, drinks, concentrates, vapes, and pet products. They’re sold online, in supplement stores, and in a growing number of supermarkets and major retailers across the US.

Most people use CBD to help with anxiety, stress, sleep, pain, and general well-being, although many also use it for specific conditions (5).

Lack of CBD Regulation

Still, one fundamental problem remains. As of 2023, the FDA continues to refuse to regulate CBD as a dietary supplement, technically making it illegal to sell. But the reality is that the FDA has not enforced this stance, likely because of the lack of resources and because it would be incredibly unpopular. 

The bigger problem is that the FDA’s decision puts CBD users at risk. Many inaccurate and potentially unsafe CBD products are sold without proper testing, labeling, and other regulations. 

The good news is that politicians are frustrated with the FDA’s lack of progress in regulating CBD, so we’re likely to see legislative changes soon.

In particular, industry stakeholders hope the 2023 Farm Bill will finally regulate CBD as a dietary supplement and make other changes, like raising hemp’s legal THC level from 0.3% to 1%.

cbd oil dropper choosing dose

How Did CBD Get Popular?

To sum up, several vital factors converged together to create the critical mass needed for the rise of CBD:

  • Increased awareness: People started to learn more about the potential therapeutic benefits of CBD, such as pain relief, reduction of anxiety, and improved sleep. This information began circulating widely in popular media, increasing interest in CBD products.
  • Shift in Perception: Society’s perception of cannabis has shifted significantly, and there’s less stigma associated with its use. As a result, more people are willing to try CBD.
  • Legal changes: Laws around cannabis have been relaxing since the late 1990s. This paved the way for the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized hemp, officially giving the green light to the CBD industry. 
  • Research: Continued research into the potential therapeutic uses of CBD led to a greater acceptance and increased demand for CBD products. Although research is ongoing, early studies show promising results for various symptoms and conditions.
  • Health & wellness trends: A broader shift towards natural and holistic wellness contributed to the acceptance of CBD as an alternative or supplementary treatment.

The Future of CBD

The future looks bright for CBD, with more and more people using it to support their health. Another big trend we’re already seeing is the growing popularity of minor cannabinoids like CBG, CBN, CBC, and THCV. 

CBD product quality and safety will continue to improve, especially when proper regulations are implemented. We’re also likely to see cannabis legalized in the US, shattering the stigma around the plant.

At the same time, the scientific community continues to provide more high-quality evidence for the benefits of CBD for many different symptoms and conditions. This will increase the use of CBD in clinical settings and give more people a safer, cheaper, and potentially more effective alternative to standard pharmaceutical medications. 


  1. Samuel, Phineas. “History of medical cannabis.” Journal of Pain Management 9.4 (2016): 387.
  2. O’Shaughnessy, William Brooke. “On the preparations of the Indian hemp, or Gunjah: Cannabis indica their effects on the animal system in health, and their utility in the treatment of tetanus and other convulsive diseases.” Provincial Medical Journal and Retrospect of the Medical Sciences 5.123 (1843): 363.
  3. Alexander, Jonathan. “Editorial comment: Desiring literacy.” College Composition and Communication 69.3 (2018): 529-533.
  4. Crocq, Marc-Antoine. “History of cannabis and the endocannabinoid system.” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience (2022).
  5. Moltke, Julie, and Chandni Hindocha. “Reasons for cannabidiol use: a cross-sectional study of CBD users, focusing on self-perceived stress, anxiety, and sleep problems.” Journal of cannabis research 3.1 (2021): 1-12.

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