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Roger Adams, the Man Who ‘Discovered’ CBD

  • 3 min read

blackboard and cannabis leaves and oil

In July 1940, Vannevar Bush was recruiting top scientists to help defeat the Nazis in World War II.

The head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Bush wanted to recruit Roger Adams, who many believed was the leading organic chemist in the United States. Born Jan. 2, 1889, Adams had entered Harvard University in 1905 at 16, graduating three years later. He then went to graduate school where he studied chemistry under Theodore William Richards, who would win the 1914 Nobel Prize for chemistry. 

But while Bush wanted Adams, there was a problem.

The head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, suspected Adams of being a member of the communist front group Lincoln’s Birthday Committee for the Advancement of Science. Not only that, a Professor Adams had been arrested in radical raids during World War I and had been a contributing member to a Japanese propaganda magazine in the 1920s.

But there was more….

Adams was doing studies on how the cannabis sativa plant affects the brain, which irked Hoover. (The 1937 Marijuana act had effectively banned the plant.)

Because of Adams’ unique expertise and growing political pressure, Hoover relented and gave Adams the security clearance he needed. 

... he’s often not given credit for his discovery, because — while he identified CBD — Adams didn’t describe its chemical makeup. 

The U.S. war effort needed rubber for the tires of military trucks, and every war machine. Plus, each military staff member required 32 lbs. of rubber for footwear, clothing and equipment. (By 1942, because of the war, natural rubber imports from the Far East had been reduced by 91 percent.) Adams was placed in charge of manufacturing synthetic rubber.

So, what about his membership in the communist front group? It turns out the FBI got it wrong. He was a member of Lincoln’s Birthday Committee for Democracy and Intellectual Freedom, a group founded to discreditNazi policies. 

When more information emerged about Adams, Hoover determined that there was “no indication” that the Professor Adams who was arrested and wrote for the Japanese magazine was the same person as Professor Roger Adams.

CBD Studies

Adams’ studies that involved the Cannabis sativa plant were done legally starting in 1939 in coordination with the U.S. Department of the Treasury. 

In early 1940, Adams and his University of Illinois team identified and synthesized cannabidiol (CBD) and cannabinol (CBN). In 1942, he was granted a patent on his method for isolating CBD. He was the first to identify tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). He and his team were also the first to determine if there were parts of the cannabis sativa plant that did not contain psychoactive qualities.

Despite this, he’s often not given credit for his discovery, because – while he identified CBD –  Adams didn’t describe its chemical makeup. One reason for this was that the technology to do so had not been developed yet.

Adams published 27 studies on cannabis in the American Journal of Chemistry. In 1959, the Roger Adams Award was established to recognize outstanding achievements in organic chemistry. Adams was awarded the American Institute of Chemists Gold Medal in 1964. Also in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson awarded Adams the National Medal of Science in Chemistry.

Honors Received

In 1967, Adams was inducted as a laureate of The Lincoln Academy of Illinois and awarded the state's highest honor, the Order of Lincoln (in the area of science), by the governor of Illinois. In 1989, Alpha Chi Sigma, a professional fraternity specializing in chemical sciences, added him to their Hall of Fame.

Invention of the Adams Scale

Adams invented the Adams scale, which is still used today to measure the potency of cannabis.  Plus, he developed a compound called the “Adams’ catalyst” (also known as platinum dioxide), which is used in hydrogenation reactions.

The world owes a big debt of gratitude to Roger Adams for his work during World War II and his work with cannabis — done at a time when the anti-cannabis hysteria was at full throttle. Adams, who died in 1971 at age 82, laid the groundwork for bringing CBD into the mainstream as an important natural drug that is helping millions lead healthier and more comfortable lives.