Well-known substance in a new look: the story behind cannabidiol

Well-known substance in a new look: the story behind cannabidiol

November 04, 2019

Cannabidiol, as the name suggests, is a derivative of the cannabis plant, also known as hemp. It contains over 400 different active ingredients, including 113 known cannabinoids. The most well-known of these are CBD and the psychoactive THC (Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol). They both belong to the sub-group of cannabigerols, next to another sub-group called cannabinols. While the flowers of certain varieties are popular as illegal drugs due to their natural THC content, the hemp plant itself has also been cultivated as a useful plant for a very long time. It is used to obtain fibers that are processed into paper, fabrics or insulating materials. 

Smoking cannabis flowers, colloquially known as "smoking pot", was used thousands of years ago as a means to relieve ailments, such as pain, without "getting high" being the main focus. The consumption of most natural plants does not lead to huge psychoactive effects. Those plants that are used for their psychoactive effects are specially bred for the THC content. Most other plants contain only a fraction of the amount in their flowers. It was found that the different cannabinoids are responsible for the spectrum of action and sometimes even overlap. However, the cannabinoid with the most positive properties is cannabidiol. It shares some of these properties with THC, but the advantage of CBD is that it has no or only a very weak psychoactive effect. 

The cannabinoids in the cannabis plant have been studied since the 1940s. About 20 years later, the cannabinoid receptors were discovered and the structural formulas of THC and CBD could be deciphered [1, 2]. In 1992, it was discovered that there are also substances in the body that activate these receptors. 

The popularity of CBD skyrocketed in the 2000s after US parents began "experimenting" with CBD as a treatment option for epileptic seizures of their children, which conventional medicine found to be ineffective. Particular attention was given to the rare form of the so-called Dravet syndrome [3]. 

Since CBD is not considered psychoactive, corresponding products are legal in Germany. It is therefore not covered by the Narcotics Act. However, CBD products may only have a certain threshold of THC, 0.0005 percent to be precise. It can only be sold as a dietary supplement or as cosmetic product. If the product was sold as a medicine or medical product with a reference to special effects, it would be considered illegal. 


  1. Loewe, S. "Studies on the pharmacology and acute toxicity of compounds with marihuana activity." Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics 88.2 (1946): 154-161. 
  2. Howlett, A. C., et al. "International Union of Pharmacology. XXVII. Classification of cannabinoid receptors." Pharmacological reviews 54.2 (2002): 161-202. 
  3. Devinsky, Orrin, et al. "Trial of cannabidiol for drug-resistant seizures in the Dravet syndrome." New England Journal of Medicine 376.21 (2017): 2011-2020.