Hemp (cannabis sativa) has played a central role in the history of the human race.

It has been used medicinally in Asia for thousands of years and first domesticated there. The use of hemp has been dated back to 10,000 years in Taiwan. There are indications that suggest it may have been one of the first plants farmed by our Neolithic ancestors.

During the Middle Ages, hemp balms and salves were regularly used to treat muscle and joint pain. Besides for its medicinal properties, societies have valued hemp as a versatile plant that provides strong fibers and possesses insulation properties as well as seed oil.

From Asia, hemp spread to many lands and was eventually introduced in 1545 to the New World through the Spanish conquest. The climate and rich soil of the New World were perfect for the cultivation of hemp. It became the first major fiber-producing plant in the U.S. after King James I required every colonist to grow 100 plants for export.

By the end of the 18th century, hemp was a major crop throughout the Americas. It was the source of the vast majority of textiles, clothing, canvas (Dutch for cannabis), rope and paper—to the tune of 80% of the of the world’s cloth and 75% of the world’s paper.

Famous articles made with hemp textile, paper and canvas include Betsy Ross’s flag, the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Mona Lisa. On the medical front, at the beginning of the 20th century tinctures and topicals containing cannabinoids represented 50% of the typical pharmacy’s product selection.

The Dark Ages

There was a natural decline in the importance of hemp with the start of the Industrial Revolution. Advances in science and machinery, like the cotton gin fueled by cheap fossil fuels, led to modern alternatives such as cotton, wood-based paper and cheaper plastics.

However, there were far more nefarious reasons for the sudden, almost total disappearance of hemp. Some of the most powerful forces in America in the early 20th century came together to destroy the hemp industry for their personal benefit.

They were William Randolph Hearst, who owned logging interests, paper manufacturing and a publishing empire: the DuPont Company, which owned a black powder munitions company and had patented materials such as rayon, nylon and other synthetic hemp-competitive materials; and Andrew Mellon, president of Mellon bank, who was a major DuPont financier.

In 1930, Andrew Mellon became the U.S. Treasury Secretary, created the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and appointed his nephew, Henry Anslinger, to run it. Anslinger, who had previously worked in the Bureau of Prohibition, used his position to undermine hemp and develop a scare campaign. With the aid of Hearst’s media empire he painted cannabis as a drug that led to rapes and murders. (Think “Reefer Madness.”)

In 1937 they forced through the Marijuana Tax Act on a Friday afternoon; a bill that was largely unread and not understood by many to be related to hemp. All of a sudden, a plant that had been part of the U.S. Pharmacopeia and used for thousands of years medicinally was made unavailable and too costly.

In 1970, the Marijuana Tax Act was ruled unconstitutional; but the Controlled Substances Act passed that same year equated hemp with marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, and cultivation and research in the U.S. about the beneficial elements of these plants ceased entirely.

Discovery of the Endocannabinoid System (ECS)

Research on cannabis did continue in other countries, though. In the 1960s an Israeli chemist, Raphael Mechoulam, PhD, first mapped the chemical structure of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol.

In the 1980s Allyn Howlett, PhD, traced where cannabinoids flowed in the brain and discovered a network of receptors she called Cannabinoid Receptor 1(CB1). These same receptors were later discovered in crucial organs, such as the lungs, kidney and liver.

Further receptors, Cannabinoid Receptor 2 (CB2), were found throughout the body in the immune system, the peripheral nervous system, the gut and spleen. There may be more receptors that will be discovered through the increase in research.

Howlett and Mechoulam described the network of cannabinoid transmitters and receptors that became known as the ECS system. This ECS system is a natural system that exists in the brains of all animals and fish and is believed to have evolved over 600 million years ago. Its principal purpose seems to keep the body in balance—the state of homeostasis.

The primary focus of the ECS system is managing and resolving inflammation to maintain our health and wellness. As modern medicine evolves, so does the understanding of the role of inflammation in causing so many diseases.

The body’s internally-produced cannabinoids (endocannabinoids) are activated to a high level in response to injuries, stress, diet, chronic disease and other environmental factors. Plant cannabinoids (phytocannabinoids) work by mimicking the body’s natural cannabinoids in the ECS. Hence, phytocannabiniods can be used to supplement the body’s natural cannabinioids to improve the ECS tone and response.

Hemp vs. Marijuana

A variety of countries have legalized hemp cultivation and sale and the U.S. just joined this group with the passage of the Farm Bill in 2018. It recognized and defined the difference between marijuana and hemp and legalized its interstate transportation legality. Industrial hemp is defined as a plant having less than 0.3% concentration of THC by weight. Any quantity of THC above that is considered marijuana.

The difference between hemp and marijuana is now quite substantial, with the breeding development of THC-concentrated marijuana over the last several decades. Modern marijuana carries a very high ratio of THC to CBD, reaching a ratio of 75 to 1. Hemp is bred for high concentrations of cannabinoids with an infinitesimal amount of THC.

A friend described the comparison between the two as similar to that of a Dalmation and a Chihuahua. They are both dogs, but the makeup of the genes and DNA produces very different animals.

While CBD is the main cannabinoid found in hemp, the plant contains as many as 50 other cannabinoids, along with terpenes and flavonoids. While the exact mechanism of action and impact of each of these compounds is not yet known, there is thought to be a synergy between them that is referred to as the entourage effect.

Thus, a full spectrum or broad spectrum cannabidiol, where few of the compounds have been removed in the extraction process, is viewed as more effective than a pure CBD extract alone.

21st Century Progress

In a way, we are now going back to the future. Our ancestors formed their knowledge of the medicinal benefits of cannabis through thousands of years of experience and observation. We are now applying the scientific method to confirm and expand on the Eastern knowledge and practices accumulated over thousands of years.

The ECS system has been discovered and accepted, with new compounds and functionality discovered through increased research. CBD in the form of Epidiolex has been approved by the FDA for the treatment of narrow cases of childhood seizures. Cannabinoid therapy has been gaining wide acceptance.

The amount and breadth of CBD research is inspiring. Areas of research include pain treatment, Parkinsons disease, mood disorders, arthritis and skin conditions, including:

The therapeutic effects of Cannabis and cannabinoids: An update from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report.

Cannabis and Cannabinoids (PDQ®)–Health Professional Version.

Biological effects of lesser known Biological effects of lesser known Phytocannabinoids.

Other researchers are isolating and studying the effect of an individual cannabinoids to ascertain how each works, in order to tailor more targeted therapies. While the research is in its infancy due to prior onerous restrictions, in-vitro and preclinical studies show promising results. We are confident that high quality CBD will be shown to be important in treating a wide range of disorders through these larger ongoing studies.

These three books may be read to further understand the role of hemp and CBD: “Cannabidiol CBD: What you need to know,” and “Medical Cannabis Basic Science & Clinical Applications,” both by Gregory L. Smith, M.D.; and “CBD, A Patient’s Guide to Medicinal Cannabis,” by Leonard Leinow.

About the Author:

Tom Wellman, co-founder of CBD Healthcare Company, has been a supplier to the spa industry for 16 years. He has worked in health care for over 30 years, managing the international operations of high-tech medical device companies and pharmaceutical companies. This expertise has yielded a high-quality CBD topical line.