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History of Marijuana as Medicine

History of Marijuana as Medicine

Cannabis has historically been one of the most popular and effective medicines in the world. It is only within the last century that governments have criminalized this amazing plant, implying that it is a dangerous drug on par with illicit substances like heroin and cocaine. Prior to the passing of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the plant was used to treat an extensive range of ailments.

More recently, public favor has been moving back in the direction of embracing the health benefits of marijuana, but there’s still a long way to go. Many modern researchers, physicians, and medical marijuana patients have rallied together to dispel the myths about cannabis that have sprung up in modern times, but few consumers realize exactly how far back the history of marijuana as medicine extends. This article will discuss the historic use of marijuana as medicine, from ancient times until the present day, to offer some much-needed perspective.

Origins in Ancient China

Cannabis was originally native to Central Asia. The earliest evidence of its medicinal use in this region can be traced back to ~500 BC. Reference to the plant appears in the Pen Ts’ao, or Compendium of Materia Medica, where it is touted as a potential herbal treatment for everything from rheumatism to absentmindedness. Most historians believe that the origins of the Pen Ts’ao can be traced back to emperor Shen-Nung of China. While there is some debate as to when he ruled, many historians place his empire between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century AD, so it’s clear that marijuana’s medical qualities have been well-known since ancient times.

The earliest use of marijuana as an anesthetic also dates back to ancient China. Renowned surgeon Hua T’o is reported to have used a powdered reduction of cannabis plants infused in wine prior to performing surgery, and in fact, the Chinese word for “anesthesia” can be translated literally into English as “cannabis intoxication”. Although Hua T’o is believed to have lived between 140 and 208 AD, ancient physicians had been aware of marijuana’s narcotic and mild anesthetic properties since the 1st millennium BC.

The Spread of Knowledge

As marijuana gained popularity as an herbal medicine in ancient China, it also began its slow spread to other regions of the globe. Surviving texts from ancient India, where marijuana was also used in religious practices, indicate that physicians used cannabis to treat conditions as diverse as headaches, insomnia, pain, and gastrointestinal disorders.

Numerous Egyptian documents, including the Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 BC) and the Berlin Papyrus (c. 1300 BC), mention the use of medical cannabis. A 1994 archeological exploration of an Egyptian tomb has also uncovered what is thought to be the earliest physical evidence of medical cannabis use. A young girl who had passed away during childbirth was found with hashish in her tomb, which experts believe she had been using to ease her labor pains.

A recent discovery in the Netherlands of a grave dating back to the late Neolithic period shows evidence that these peoples also likely used cannabis as a painkiller. The ancient Assyrians referred to marijuana in multiple medical texts as “qunnabu,” a word some scholars believe to be etymologically related to the modern word ‘cannabis’.

Ancient Greece and Rome

The ancient Greeks had a few uses for cannabis. They used dried leaves to treat nose bleeds and steeped green seeds in water or wine to create an extract used to treat pain and inflammation associated with ear obstructions. In ancient Rome, writers like Galen and Dioscorides recommended an extract of marijuana seeds to treat everything from earaches to flatulence, as well. Both cultures also used marijuana as a painkiller.

The Medieval Islamic World

Arabic physicians used Cannabis sativa extensively from the 8th century to the 18th century AD. It was prescribed as a diuretic, an antiemetic, an antiepileptic, an analgesic, an antipyretic, and an anti-inflammatory agent. Today’s medical researchers have investigated these and other uses of marijuana, and many of them are supported by rigorous, modern scientific studies.

Marijuana as Medicine in the West

The use of marijuana as a medicine did not catch on in the West until the mid-19th century. The plant was brought from India to Europe by Irish physician William B. O’Shaughnessy, who recommended cannabis be used as a general analgesic and anti-convulsant. O’Shaughnessy also created tinctures used to treat multiple disorders including rheumatism, stomach cramps, pain, and muscle spasms.

By the Victorian era, marijuana had become a popular ingredient in what were known as patent medicines. These medicines could be purchased over-the-counter in pharmacies and used to treat asthma, insomnia, migraines, and other conditions. By the time the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed, there were over 2,000 cannabis-based medicines.

The Marijuana Tax Act

Unfortunately, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 put a stop not just to the use of common cannabis-based medical tinctures, but also most banned research into the further benefits of medical marijuana. The bill, brought before Congress by Harry Anslinger (then-director of the recently established Federal Bureau of Narcotics) was based on the unsubstantiated claims that marijuana caused those who partook to become violent and suffer insanity.

Most historians now agree that the primary drive behind passing the Marijuana Tax Act was racism against African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities who routinely used marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes. Even at the time, there were plenty of experts who opposed its ratification. Dr. William Woodward, a spokesman for the American Medical Association (AMA), vocally opposed the bill and the organized misinformation campaign behind it. Unfortunately, the AMA and other opponents were unsuccessful in their efforts to combat the misinformation, and marijuana remains federally illegal today.

Ongoing Pushback from the Medical Community

Although most research into medical marijuana was banned following the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, those studies that were performed during the mid to late 20th century confirmed the AMA’s initial case for opposition to banning marijuana. A 1944 study performed by the New York Academy of Medicine indicated that not only was marijuana non-addictive and unlikely to lead to the abuse of other drugs and claimed that the public hysteria whipped up by Anslinger was not founded in scientific fact. The panel of experts behind the report indicated that marijuana was not just harmless, but potentially useful. Anslinger, who was still a commissioner at the time, denounced the report and had many copies destroyed.

In 1971, President Nixon created a Presidential Commission to investigate the links between marijuana and drug abuse. Despite political pressure and the common sentiments of the time, the commission recommended that the United States’ laws criminalizing the recreational use of marijuana be repealed. Unsurprisingly, Nixon disavowed their report and ignored its findings.

A similar study published in 1982 by the National Academy of Sciences was also ignored by President Reagan. In other words, the medicinal value and generally harmless nature of cannabis remained well-known and acknowledged within academic and scientific communities, but political pressures stopped the laws criminalizing this harmless plant from being repealed.

Changing Tides

The resurgence of marijuana in popular culture that occurred during the 1960s helped to fuel a renewed interest in its medical properties in the next decade. In the early 1970s, young cancer patients began to notice that smoking marijuana helped to relieve both cancer pain and the nausea induced by chemotherapy, and clinical researchers at Harvard soon confirmed the plant’s effectiveness as an anti-nausea agent. Patients elsewhere were quickly discovering that marijuana could also alleviate symptoms like chronic pain and muscle spasticity associated with spinal injuries and multiple sclerosis.

Proof of the herb’s effectiveness at treating glaucoma came from an unexpected source. Scientists tasked with coming up with methods for detecting intoxication instead discovered that marijuana use reduces intraocular pressure in glaucoma patients. By the 1970s, it was widely accepted that marijuana could be used as an effective treatment for glaucoma.

By the late 1970s, interest in the medicinal properties of marijuana had increased to the point where 35 different U.S. states had passed legislation to establish medical marijuana research programs. Unfortunately, these programs were universally shut down by the federal government, which made it impossible to continue producing scientifically rigorous research on the usefulness of marijuana. The federal government’s justification for shutting down the programs was that the 1970 Controlled Substance Act designated marijuana a Schedule 1 controlled substance, indicating that cannabis had no recognized medicinal properties despite researchers presenting findings that delegitimized such claims.

The Compassionate Use Protocol

Most modern medical marijuana patients assume that they are in the vanguard of legalized cannabis. What they don’t know is that the first legal medical marijuana patient received permission from the federal government to use marijuana to treat his glaucoma in 1976. Getting permission to use the drug required the patient, Robert Randall, to sue the federal government to establish a new Compassionate Use protocol.

The Compassionate Use program supplied free marijuana to Randall and several other patients who were unable to find relief from conventional medicines. It was shut down to new applicants following the spread of the AIDS virus, but there are still four surviving program participants who continue to receive legal marijuana under this protocol today.

Contemporary Medical Marijuana Laws

Although marijuana remains classified as a Schedule 1 drug, individual states began to pass laws exempting medical marijuana patients from prosecution starting in the late 20th century. California became the first state to enact an exemption in 1996 when the state passed the California Compassionate Use Act (Proposition 215). Other states followed suit, and today, 33 states have legalized the possession, use, and/or cultivation of medical marijuana.

Federal Push-Back

The federal government began a campaign to shut down state medical marijuana laws as soon as California passed Proposition 215. Led by Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey, the government initially threatened prescribing physicians with arrest. Thankfully, this initiative was blocked by a federal court case, Conant v. Walters, which upheld physicians’ protections under the First Amendment. Despite this minor win for states’ rights, the federal government continued to push back against legalized medical marijuana by targeting growers, co-ops, and dispensaries.

While the government was penalizing growers, distributors, and patients, the same Drug Czar also commissioned a review of the scientific evidence on potential benefits and risks of medical marijuana and its component parts. The report, issued in 1999 by the national Institute of Medicine (IOM), indicated that the cannabinoids found in marijuana had potential therapeutic value. It recommended further research and clinical trials. Unfortunately, the federal government ignored the report and continued to oppose the legalization of marijuana despite its many proven benefits.

Medical Marijuana in the 21st Century

Although as of the beginning of 2020, the federal government continues to consider marijuana both illegal and devoid of therapeutic benefits, despite today’s public and scientific communities largely acknowledging the plant’s medical benefits.

One cannabinoid found in all cannabis plants, cannabidiol (CBD), was legalized in 2018 and is now available to medical patients in all 50 United States. While CBD is useful in treating some medical conditions, legalizing CBD alone is not a solution because some conditions, including glaucoma, low appetite, certain types of muscle spasticity, and insomnia are best treated by a combination of THC and CBD, along with other, lesser known phytocannabinoids. Many medical patients and recreational users, alike, have celebrated Canada’s recent decision to legalize all adult use of marijuana and are hoping that the United States government may soon follow suit.

The Bottom Line

Although not everyone supports legalizing recreation, or even medicinal, marijuana, the plant’s medical benefits are no longer up for debate. Decades of ongoing scientific research have proven that the cannabinoids and other chemical components found in cannabis provide relief from chronic pain, insomnia, nausea, migraines, certain mental disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, glaucoma, epilepsy, and other serious diseases. As popular opinion regarding marijuana’s usefulness continues to change, one can only hope that the U.S. government will rethink its harsh regulations on this harmless and astoundingly beneficial plant. In the meantime, people can obtain cannabis seeds as souvenirs from online cannabis seed distributors like