How did cannabidiol (CBD), a non-intoxicating cannabis compound, emerge from near total obscurity a dozen years ago to become the most popular health supplement on the planet? And what role did Project CBD play in making this happen?

When California legalized cannabis for medical use in 1996, only THC-dominant cannabis was available for patients. Few people knew about CBD. Enamored of the euphoria-inducing qualities of the plant, talented renegade horticulturalists had inadvertently bred CBD-rich genetics out of the supply chain in an effort to enhance the “high” that cannabis is famous for.

That started to change around 2010 when a few CBD-rich cannabis cultivars (“Harlequin,” “Jamaican Lion,” “Sour Tsunami,” “Blue Jay Way”) were identified by newly established analytical labs in Northern California. These were not hemp plants — they were odiferous, high-resin marijuana varietals brimming with medicated goo that contained a significant amount of both CBD and THC.

Project CBD formed in 2010 to educate the medical cannabis community about the therapeutic potential of CBD. We created the first and longest running website dedicated to sharing CBD-related information. But what good would it do to tell people about CBD if one couldn’t access it? So we seeded the medical cannabis landscape with CBD-rich genetics. We began to distribute CBD-rich clones free of charge to cannabis growers and medical patients. And we encouraged fledging dispensaries to offer CBD-rich flower as an option for patrons along with the usual THC-rich fare.

A Game-Changer

It was, in essence, an unsupervised experiment, a grassroots laboratory experiment in democracy. We wanted to learn what would happen when people consumed CBD-rich cannabis. Would the effects of whole-plant CBD be anything like what we heard discussed at meetings of the International Cannabinoid Research Society, where cannabidiol emerged as a hot topic among scientists who were probing the compound’s anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anticonvulsant, anti-tumoral, neuroprotective, and analgesic properties? The preclinical science was nothing short of jaw-dropping. But most of this research involved single-molecule CBD (tested on mice) rather than CBD-rich cannabis flower, which is what we had in California.

Right from the start we sensed that CBD could be a game-changer for the medical marijuana movement, which was then under attack by the federal government and various state and local law enforcement agencies. We thought CBD might be the key to liberating cannabis from the drug abuse paradigm. How could the curmudgeons in the Drug Czar’s office justify the ongoing prohibition of CBD-rich cannabis, a benign medicinal herb with no known adverse side effects that wasn’t about getting high?

The reappearance of whole-plant CBD coincided with the advent of potent cannabis oil extracts that could be ingested orally or applied topically. These developments meant that one didn’t have to smoke cannabis or get stoned to experience medical benefits! We anticipated that many people would want the health benefits of cannabis without the high, or with less of a high, and that would be possible thanks to CBD.

A Tipping Point

The crucial tipping point came in the summer of 2013, when CNN broadcast Sanjay Gupta’s special on medical marijuana that featured the now famous case of Charlotte Figi, a young girl from Colorado who suffered from a severe form of epilepsy. She was having hundreds of seizures a week and FDA-approved pharmaceuticals weren’t helping. Her parents feared they had run out of options when they heard about a boy with a similar condition in California who responded well to CBD-rich cannabis oil. Charlotte’s mom found a high CBD/low THC product at a Colorado cannabis dispensary and it worked like a charm for her daughter, reducing her seizures to a couple a month.

Suddenly, the CBD genie was out of the bottle: marijuana, once slandered as “the Assassin of Youth,” could save the lives of desperately ill children. And what’s more, kids and grown-ups didn’t have to get stoned to get better if they used this type of medical marijuana. The idea that it might be possible to access the therapeutic upside of cannabis without experiencing euphoria or dysphoria would prove irresistible to millions of people around the world after the CNN special aired.

2013 was also the year that scientists at the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, published a groundbreaking report, “Modulating the Endocannabinoid System in Health and Disease.” The report by Pal Pacher and George Kunos asserted that “modulating endocannabinoid activity may have therapeutic potential in almost all disease affecting humans.” As we discuss on our website, CBD and THC exert manifold therapeutic effects by modulating the endocannabinoid system.

A Critical Mass

Between 2013 and 2018, popular enthusiasm for CBD would build into a critical mass. This helped to destigmatize cannabis and restore its reputation as an important medicinal plant. CBD accentuated the pro-cannabis cultural shift in the U.S. and elsewhere that had been gaining momentum for some time. As the medical cannabis movement evolved, so did Project CBD. When the Golden State legalized cannabis for adult use, we provided a detailed critique of California’s proposed testing requirements for pesticides, heavy metals, and solvents in cannabis products. Several of our recommendations for amending these requirements were subsequently adopted.

We functioned as a nonprofit educational clearinghouse, sharing information with health professionals, journalists, product-makers, and others who wanted to learn about new developments in cannabis science and therapeutics. We also communicated directly with scientists who were curious about what was happening on the ground in California and other states where patients were using CBD. Whereas in the early going we stressed that THC wasn’t the only game in town, increasingly we felt it was important to emphasize that there’s much more to medical cannabis than just CBD — that the whole plant exceeded the therapeutic attributes of any single component.

Part of our efforts were devoted to debunking wild claims and erroneous information from hemp start-ups and predatory entrepreneurs who sought to profit from the public’s desperation for alternative health treatments. The nascent CBD market was rife with poorly manufactured and mislabeled products, and our journalistic endeavors rubbed some people the wrong way. In 2015, Project CBD was hit with a $100 million lawsuit, alleging that we had libeled a CBD business. A costly legal battle dragged on for several years, and Project CBD ultimately prevailed in court.

A Superstar Supplement

2018 was a key year for CBD — and for Project CBD. In June, the FDA approved a CBD isolate (Epidiolex) as a pharmaceutical treatment for two kinds a pediatric epilepsy. And in December Congress passed the Farm Bill, which legalized the cultivation of hemp (cannabis with no more than 0.3 percent THC) in response to a huge consumer demand for CBD. What started below the radar within Northern California’s medical cannabis community would soon become the hottest health supplement on the planet.

But the FDA steadfastly refused to regulate CBD commerce, raising safety concerns about CBD’s effect on the liver, among other issues. Project CBD submitted testimony to the FDA addressing these concerns and recruited volunteers for a clinical trial conducted by ValidCare that gave CBD a clean bill of health with respect to liver function. In 2018, Project CBD also released a special report on cannabinoid-drug interactions, which cautioned that CBD can interact with most FDA approved pharmaceuticals. The report maintained that CBD patients shouldn’t forgo other medications, but a physician should monitor changes in blood levels of prescription meds and, if need be, adjust the dosage.

The following year Project CBD conducted an extensive consumer survey to find out who was using CBD and why. Over 3500 respondents from 58 countries participated in this observational study, which sought to assess CBD’s efficacy (or lack of efficacy) and its impact on six quality of life measurements: pain, mood, sleep, physical function, energy or motivation, and ability to socialize. Overall, CBD was found to be effective at helping people with a wide range of conditions feel better with few adverse side effects.

An Unregulated Mess

When word got out that Coca-Cola might add a CBD-infused drink to its diabetes-inducing beverage line, we didn’t know if we should take a victory lap or cry. CBD (aka Cola$$al Big Dollars) had morphed into a gargantuan, unregulated global market. But the overproduction of hemp biomass for CBD oil extraction proved to be calamitous for U.S. farmers, as the price of CBD isolate crashed. An apparent loophole in the poorly-written Farm Bill would be exploited by purveyors of Delta-8 consumables and other intoxicating, synthetically-derived THC analogs. Initially touted for its salubrious, non-psychoactive properties, cheap CBD isolate became starter material for a “pandora’s box” of sketchy, mind-altering compounds that don’t exist in nature and are sold openly coast to coast without any regulatory oversight, especially in states where cannabis remains illegal.

Gazing into our crystal ball, we see biotech companies poised to unleash a deluge of pure CBD isolate, grown from yeast or another substrate, which will circumvent the need to extract CBD from hemp biomass. Hemp-derived CBD, which dominates the current market, will not be able to compete with cheaper, biosynthesized or lab-synthesized CBD. But traditional industrial hemp industry products (fiber, bast and hurd, nutritional protein) should thrive in an era of single-molecule mania.

Project CBD has explicitly warned about the potential dangers of synthetically produced CBD, which can result in novel, unnatural “chiral” forms of cannabidiol with unknown effects. We have always felt that regulatory policy should not privilege single-molecule cannabinoids over artisanal whole plant cannabis remedies. People are best served by having access to a wide range of cannabinoid-based therapeutic options. Pharmaceutical CBD is no longer a controlled substance in the United States. Herbal CBD should be accorded the same respect — and that includes CBD-rich cannabis with a variety of THC:CBD ratios and exquisite terpene profiles gifted by Mother Nature and nurtured by the human hand.

This article was written by Project CBD director, Martin A. Lee. He’s authored and edited several books, including Smoke SignalsAcid Dreams, and The Essential Guide to CBD. © Copyright, Project CBD. May not be reprinted without permission.