CBD has been in the mainstream now for a number of years. It’s gained widespread attention due to anecdotal stories about its seemingly endless benefits. Yet the scientific community has faced numerous obstacles to solidifying these claims with data-driven evidence.
Research on the cannabis plant and the endocannabinoid system began centuries ago and has produced hundreds of reports on the role of cannabinoid receptors in the brain in receiving and processing CBD. Even so, there’s still a lot to study. Today, dozens of universities and research facilities are still conducting small-scale clinical trials and diagnostic studies with CBD to learn more about its potential effects on the body.
Here’s a peek at what’s been studied so far, as well as what is on the horizon for CBD research.
History of Cannabis and CBD Research
While it may seem to be a modern trend, the roots of cannabis research date back way earlier than most people realize. Dr. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, an Irish physician and scientist, published one of the first research papers on cannabis in 1839 while working in India. In fact, he was one of the first physicians in the world to propose that cannabis could be used for medicinal purposes. French physician Moreau later picked up similar studies, focusing particularly on the impact of cannabis on psychiatric conditions. However, it wasn’t until 1940 that American scientist Thomas Wood successfully isolated and elucidated the first known cannabinoid - cannabinol, or CBN.
A few decades later, Israeli scientist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, also known as the “father of cannabis,” picked up the work of his predecessors In pursuit of understanding how the body processes cannabinoids, he discovered the endocannabinoid system. At the same time, he also isolated our star molecule cannabidiol, aka CBD. For the next 40+ years, Dr. Mechoulam and his Jerusalem-based team continued to isolate dozens of other phytocannabinoids and also discovered the presence of the endocannabinoids, beginning with anandamide and 2-AG.
The work of O’Shaughnessy, Wood, and Mechoulam provided tremendous context for the world’s understanding of the cannabis plant and sparked a phenomenal interest in further examining the way cannabis impacts the body. However, the illegality of the plant in most countries greatly impeded the amount of research done not just on marijuana (high-THC cannabis) but also on low-THC hemp and non-psychoactive cannabinoids like CBD.
Currently, cannabis is still a Schedule 1 controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act. Under this law, researchers seeking to investigate cannabis must work with the FDA, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the DEA to meet the federal requirements specified in the Controlled Substances Act to conduct research. Researchers can only use cannabis products sourced through the University of Mississippi, which is currently the NIDA’s only licensed grower and distributor. These restrictions present a catch-22: research is restricted because cannabis is an illegal substance, yet more research is needed to determine whether cannabis should be descheduled and/or legalized.
Said Nora Volkow, director of the NIDA, “Having only a single domestic source of research cannabis limits the diversity of products and formulations available to researchers and slows the development of cannabis-based medications.”
Related Article: New Cannabinoid Discovery Highlights Need for More Cannabis Research
Many universities and research facilities have committed to working around these obstacles, and there are a number of online resources that you can use to view past and present clinical trials on CBD and other cannabinoids. However, most of these studies remain relatively small and scale and are typically not conducted on humans.
There have recently been a few successful FDA-approved human trials of note, resulting in the first pharmaceutical drug containing CBD as an active ingredient called Epidiolex. The preceding human-based clinical trials and subsequent approval of the drug give optimism to the cannabis industry as they pave the way forward for more large-scale research studies to come.
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