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Happy Birthday CBD: 75 years Old and Only Just Beginning!

Chemists first discovered CBD isolate in 1940, but we didn’t know its true potential until 1946 when a doctor unearthed properties within the compound that could treat epilepsy. Now, 75 years later, CBD has become a $2.6 billion business, with almost one-third of all U.S. adults admitting they’ve tried the compound at least once.

CBD Pioneer

Adams (left) explains his CBD isolation process


Roger Adams: CBD Pioneer

CBD, an abbreviation of cannabidiol, was first discovered in August 1940 by Roger Adams, a true Boston blue-blood and direct descendant of President John Adams. He entered Harvard in 1905 at age 16, and in 1913 travelled on a fellowship to Germany, the world leader in chemistry at that time, and studied at Berlin’s prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.

In 1917, Adams took a position with the National Research Council in Washington, DC, working on developing prophylactics to gas attacks. After the war he remained close to the then-forming national security establishment, which also had an impact on what would be his life’s most important scientific work. In 1939—just two years after marijuana was banned by Congress—Adams received a Treasury Department license to work with cannabis oil at his lab in Urbana-Champaign and presented a paper to the National Academy of Science on “The Chemistry of Marihuana.”

Cannabis writer Bill Weinberg writes in Freedom Leaf  that marijuana’s newly illegal status made this research controversial and how the esteemed chemist was publicly dressed down by Harry J. Anslinger, the anti-cannabis zealot who was the crusading figure behind the “reefer madness” of this era.

“As commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Anslinger was the nation’s first Drug Czar. And since Adams’ research was being overseen by the bureau, Anslinger apparently perceived him as having a bit too much enthusiasm for his work. After Adams reportedly let slip in mixed company about the “pleasant effects of the use of this drug,” Anslinger publicly scolded him. “In my opinion, this drug is bad for human consumption and should be painted so,” he lectured.


FBI on Adams: “premature anti-fascist”

In 1940, Adams was appointed to the National Defense Research Committee to assist in the war effort, but FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover suspected him of being a Communist sympathizer and blocked Adams’ appointment for several months due to his membership in the Lincoln’s Birthday Committee for Democracy and Intellectual Freedom, a body of academics opposed to Nazi pseudoscience and “race” theories. Adams was what would later be called a “premature anti-fascist.” With the U.S. and USSR allied in World War II, anti-Communism was (for a while) de-emphasized, and Adams eventually got his security clearance. 

From a scientific standpoint, Adams’ most important work was his cannabis research in the early 1940s when he identified and synthesized cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN). In 1942, he won a patent for his method of isolating CBD. Adams was also the first researcher to identify tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and published 27 studies on cannabis in the American Journal of Chemistry.

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