In recent years, public interest in “the other cannabinoid,” Cannabidiol, or CBD, has grown exponentially. Arguably, a greater amount of attention for the non-psychoactive CBD and its powerful medical properties has been one of main factors in society taking a fresh look at cannabis, and in turn, cannabis law. With potent anti-seizure properties, CBD is capable of combating conditions like epilepsy while other medications consistently fail. If that weren’t enough, CBD fights insomnia and even counteracts many of THC’s side effects - such as anxiety and memory loss. In fact, this is merely a small sample of CBD’s potential medical benefits, which also include the ability to combat PTSD, cancer, and brain damage in stroke and traumatic brain injury victims.
Until recently, cannabis strains were almost exclusively cultivated for THC content. This actually led breeders to unknowingly breed CBD out of the cannabis gene pool for cultivated strains. By the late 90s, with the emergence of gas chromatography to test cannabinoid potency and content, the stage was finally set for the wave of high-CBD strains we see today.
However, the story of CBD’s discovery actually begins much earlier, when Dr. Roger Adams and colleagues first isolated and identified the compound at the University of Illinois in 1940, 20 years before the discovery of THC. However, CBD took a backseat to THC in publicity after Israeli chemist Raphael Mechoulam isolated that molecule in 1964. While, unsurprisingly, he has become most famous for his work with THC, Mechoulam dedicated his life to studying cannabis in general. As a chemist who only consumed cannabis once in his life, Mechoulan has explained his choice of cannabis as a subject for his research: "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."
In 1980, Mechoulam published results from a clinical trial, which found that CBD reduced seizures in 8 out of 10 epileptic patients in the study. Mechoulam expected to attract the attention of drug companies, and for funding to pour in for larger studies on what seemed to be a miracle compound. Yet, thanks largely to social stigma and antiquated laws, he found no one was interested. This wariness among the scientific and pharmaceutical community to investigate further has only recently begun to shift in the last several years.
With word arriving of pioneering CBD studies in the United Kingdom, especially by Doctor Geoffrey Guy and GW Pharmaceuticals in the late nineties, interest was piqued on the American west coast following California’s legalization of medical cannabis in 1996. But it wasn’t until after the formation of the pioneering Oakland dispensary Harborside Health, in 2006, that CBD strains came into the spotlight in the US. By 2009, Harborside was using gas chromatography to analyze cannabis, which allowed some of the first verified high-CBD strains to be created in the US. In 2010, Project CBD began working to preserve high-CBD strains from growers.
According to Kevin Jowdry, CBD pioneer and director and owner of Wonderland Nursery in Humboldt County, two separate efforts in this CBD preserving period began to crystallize into the CBD strains we know today. Cannatonic - a CBD dominant strain - was introduced by Resin Seeds at Spannabis in 2008, and was able to consistently display CBD content ranging from 1:1 CBD:THC ratios all the way to CBD dominant 18:1. Despite impressive yields, Cannatonic varieties, however, tend to come with less desirable terpene profiles (and therefore tastes and aromas), usually with disproportionate levels of myrcene and caryophyllene. For this reason, Cannatonic is most often used for hash oil production – since the subcritical CO2 process destroys terpenes anyway, the terpene profile is a non-issue for oil production.
At the same time, Lawrence Ringo of the Southern Humboldt Seed Collective was separately working to breed stabilized CBD strains. These efforts led to what we know today as Sour Tsunami. Along with Harlequin, Sour Tsunami tends to have a more palatable terpene profile with high levels of pinene and limonene. Though lower yielding compared with Cannatonic, these varieties have found more success in recreational-based markets. Since the creation of these strains, the popularity of CBD has exploded. Hemp-based CBD is often sold in health-food and herbal medicine stores. Several companies even offer CBD products for pets.
Current high-CBD breeding efforts often seek better flavor profiles, or a wider variety of stable CBD:THC ratios. The current trend is moving away from extraction into a cultivar-specific, whole-plant medicine model. Even with these recent discoveries and creations, research on CBD is still in its infancy, which means we don’t know what benefits may have yet to be discovered. With such a wide range of medical uses, and a growing legal market, the variety of CBD medicine is sure to expand in the coming years.