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Medical Cannabis Through History

Medical Cannabis Through History

The cannabis plant has been integrated into human societies for thousands of years; throughout history, humans have used cannabis in a myriad of ways, ranging from farming hemp for textile purposes, to psychotropic cannabis use for shamanic rituals. One of the primary uses people have found for the cannabis plant, however, is for the medicinal properties it possesses. To this day, we are still discovering new ways this miraculous plant can help us - through treatment, healing, and even preventative medicine. A whole host of anecdotal evidence exists to confirm that cannabis can help people suffering from any number of ailments, and science is just now catching up. Researchers are trying to determine not only what illnesses cannabis can help treat, but how exactly this plant is so beneficial. Scientists are breaking cannabinoid compounds down, testing and retesting their abilities, remarking on their findings, and working to find new ways to apply their newfound knowledge on the subject.

The realm of medicinal cannabis, commonly referred to as “medical marijuana”, is ever-expanding. We are constantly finding new conditions we can use cannabis to treat, and new ways to apply the medication itself. We have science on our side, and new technology that allows us to conduct experimentation in controlled environments, and document with precision the results of each analysis - but we need only glance at the recordings throughout history of the many uses our ancestors have made of this plant to find reassurance that cannabis is indeed a powerful and potent medicine that can withstand the test of time.

Medical Marijuana: The Beginning


The first documented use of the cannabis plant is from around 10,000 years ago, where archaeologists discovered remnants of pottery in an ancient village on the island of Taiwan that had been decorated using hemp cord, and, along with the pottery, found tools they believe were used to separate hemp fibers from the stems. Based on these discoveries, hemp is believed to be one of the first agricultural crops known to humankind.


The earliest known record referencing cannabis as medicine was by the Chinese Emperor Fu Hsi, in around 2900 BC. Fu Hsi reportedly claimed cannabis was a medicine that possessed both yin and yang. Emperor Shen Nung (circa 2700 BC), was considered the Father of Chinese medicine, and recommended the use of cannabis to treat an array of maladies, including gout, rheumatism, malaria and poor memory. In a compendium of drug recipes compiled in 1 AD, which is considered to be the world's oldest pharmacopoeia, and was based on traditions from the time of Shen Nung, cannabis use is recommended for more than 100 ailments. Another Chinese medical text from around 1578 AD described the use of marijuana to treat vomiting, parasitic infections, and hemorrhage.

Around 2,000-800 BC, Bhang (a drink made with dried cannabis buds and leaves) was mentioned in Atharvaveda, a sacred Hindu text, with the plant referred to as "Sacred Grass". Cannabis was used both medicinally and ritually across India, and still is to this day.


In 1550 BC, the ancient Egyptians used medical cannabis as a way to treat inflammation, glaucoma, and other ailments. In addition to finding notes written on papyrus about the medical use of cannabis, archaeologists even discovered cannabis pollen (kief) on the ancient mummy of Ramesses II, who died around 1213 BC.


Ancient texts from Persia from around 700 BC detail cannabis as the most important medicinal herb, and several accounts from ancient Rome detailed methods of using cannabis medicinally. The publications De Materia Medica (On Medical Matters) by Pedanius Dioscorides, published in 70 AD, and Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, published in 79 AD, suggest cannabis’ usefulness in treating ailments including cramping, earaches, gout, and severe pain. Even renowned Roman physician Claudius Galen documented his observations on the medical benefits of cannabis use in treating certain maladies, such as burns.


In 200 AD, Hua Tuo, a Chinese surgeon, was the first physician in recorded history to use cannabis as an anesthetic during surgery. Hua Tuo mixed ground up cannabis with wine, and gave it to patients to drink prior to surgery.


In medieval Europe (100-1000s AD), cannabis was integrated into common folk medicine, and was used to treat problems like tumors, cough, and jaundice.


Many archaeological finds have included cannabis, or cannabis paraphernalia. Gravesites from all over the world, from different cultures in different eras have yielded trace remnants, or even major caches, of cannabis, both used in practical applications such as medical treatments, and as a parting gift of sorts - a precious herb offered to the person in their passing, to be sent along with them on their journey to the next realm. While there is still much to be discovered, what we do know with absolute surety is, cannabis has been ever-present in our history, from ancient times to the modern age..


Medical Marijuana and Modern Medicine

As medical science progressed, people found that the applications medical cannabis was used for in yesteryears were, in many instances, still valid, and medical professionals sought to build upon the knowledge established by previous generations.

In 1621, English Clergyman and Oxford scholar Robert Burton wrote “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” in which he put forth the idea that cannabis could be used as an effective treatment for depression - a theory that has been widely studied, and largely supported by modern science since then.

Cannabis-based treatments were included in the New English Dispensatory of 1764, and in The Edinburgh New Dispensatory of 1794, encouraging its use for coughs, inflammation, venereal disease, and urinary incontinence. It was added to the United States Pharmacopeia in 1850, and included in the The National Formulary and United States Dispensatory in 1854.

More than 100 papers published between 1840 to 1900 in western medical literature recommended medical cannabis use for various illnesses and discomforts. WB O'Shaughnessy, a professor at the Medical College of Calcutta and one of the first academics to research the medical properties of cannabis in the U.S., began conducting animal trials, and, after seeing positive results, started administering cannabis to patients suffering from rabies, rheumatism, epilepsy, and tetanus. He published a report in 1839, in which he wrote that he had found a solution of cannabis in alcohol, taken orally, to be an effective analgesic. He also noted its powerful muscle-relaxant properties, calling  it "an anticonvulsant remedy of the greatest value."

In 1913, individual states began criminalizing cannabis; California was the first, and other states quickly began passing new laws to prohibit its use, driven by gateway-drug myths, and culture wars waged against an influx of immigrants coming from Mexico. This hotbed of reactionary policy implementation instigated the fear-driven stigma against cannabis, leading to the downfall of cannabis as a medicine in the U.S.

In 1937, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics implemented the Marihuana Tax Act, justifying the new prohibition with claims that cannabis was addictive, and that its use led to violent crimes, psychosis, and mental deterioration. Although physicians were permitted to recommend medical cannabis use for patients, the bureaucratic process through which physicians were required to apply for authorization from the federal government to prescribe and obtain cannabis became such a cumbersome burden that few doctors were willing to go through the necessary steps to gain approval, and many were dissuaded from recommending cannabis due to the perceived stigma surrounding the now-controversial plant.

In 1941, cannabis was removed from the United States Pharmacopeia and National Formulary.


In 1970, Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act - also known as the Controlled Substances Act - which ranked drugs by their perceived safety, determining their level of restriction and legality. Cannabis was classified as a Schedule I drug, the most restrictive category, defined as drugs with no medical use and a high potential for abuse, that cannot be used safely even under a doctor's supervision. In 1985, the government reclassified synthetic THC, known as dronabinol, as a Schedule II drug, making it legal for doctors to prescribe.


In the late 1970s to early 80s, many states tried to pass medical cannabis laws to permit patients access, but because cannabis was not recognized as medicine under federal law, the only way states were permitted to dispense it was by establishing formal research programs aimed at getting FDA approval through an Investigational New Drugs (IND) application. In November of 1978, the FDA approved the first state  program in New Mexico. From 1978 to 1986 around 250 cancer patients in New Mexico received either marijuana or THC provided by the federal government.


Due to a growing demand for access to medical cannabis, the FDA instituted an Individual Treatment IND (commonly referred to as a Compassionate Use IND), which physicians could apply for, for individual patients who would benefit from medical marijuana.


In 1976 the first patient was issued a Compassionate IND for the use of cannabis, and over the next 13 years a half dozen more were authorized.


In 1992 the federal government discontinued the programs, citing concern that the general public might get the wrong idea, and believe cannabis use was safe. Thirteen patients who had been approved and were already receiving cannabis from the government were allowed to continue receiving it - and to this day, the remaining patients from these studies still receive a monthly supply of cannabis provided by the federal government.


With access to medical cannabis completely cut off, and people still in dire need of treatment, states began to push for medical cannabis legalization on their own. Fittingly, California was the first state to pass a comprehensive medical cannabis legalization measure, implementing a state-wide program in which patients can receive authorization from a physician certifying they have a condition that qualifies them for medical cannabis use under the new law, and granting them the ability to both grow their own cannabis plants, and purchase cannabis from dispensaries (stores that supply medical cannabis to authorized patients).


As more and more states began legalizing medical cannabis, the federal government began cracking down on both individual patients growing and using cannabis for their own personal maladies, as well as suppliers of medical cannabis, including doctors and dispensaries, amping up the war on drugs to become highly focused on targeting and eradicating medical cannabis.


Meanwhile, the United State’s neighbor to the North, Canada, opted to become the first country to legalize medical marijuana on a federal level in 2001.

In 2009, amidst the enforcement of long-standing policies that mandated all medical cannabis patients be considered criminals, President Barack Obama and his administration announced their intent to move forward with a new approach: to no longer pursue or dedicate resources to interfering with medical marijuana patients and distributors who are in compliance with state laws.


In 2012,  the states of Washington and Colorado and the country of Uruguay voted to legalize cannabis for recreational use. Several more states legalized in the following years, and many more are in the process of following suit. Although some states are still in the process of trying to pass or expand medical cannabis legalization, nearly all 50 states have some form of cannabis legal, whether for medical or recreational use, in raw plant form, or in processed medications containing isolated cannabis compounds. And, at the same time, many countries around the world are looking to expand their cannabis laws, to allow for medical use, as well as recreational, in a myriad of forms.

Countless studies have been conducted over the years, and the quest for knowledge continues to proliferate all over the world, in areas where research is not stymied by staunch anti-drug laws prohibiting the scientific community from evaluating the potential in cannabis. Even in the U.S., where cannabis remains illegal on a federal level, more and more information is surfacing from researchers persevering through difficult legal restrictions that shows how powerful the healing properties of this plant truly are. Undoubtedly, as the world continues to progress in its acceptance of cannabis as not only an unstoppable force, but a boon to medical sciences, economic growth, and even environmentally sustainable agriculture and manufacturing, more and more uses for this universally beneficial plant will continue to be revealed.

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