As members of the cannabis plant family, hemp (known largely for CBD) and marijuana (known largely for THC) have been in the spotlight as “alternative forms of medicine” in recent years. Enthusiasm for CBD has grown exponentially, and the facts are becoming more convincing. Spas, gas stations, local supplement stores and more are cashing in on this health trend. People are saying the trend is taking off faster than science can keep up. Although science seems to lag, let’s explore the history of cannabis as a medicine.
Photo credit: Purdue.edu
For over 12,000 years the cannabis plant has provided humans with fiber, food, medicine, and perhaps inebriation. The cannabis plant has a history of medicinal use dating back thousands of years in many cultures. The earliest written accounts of cannabis used as medicine originated in ancient China.
Considered to be the father of Chinese agriculture, Emperor Shen-Nung praised the plant as an important herbal remedy. Oral traditions explained medicinal cannabis as a remedy for over 100 medical conditions. This information was incorporated into the first Chinese pharmacopeia known as Pen-ts’ao Ching.
By 200 B.C.E., cannabis was used a medicine in Egypt, Greece, the Mediterranean region and India. Even religious text from ancient Persia mentioned cannabis as the “most important of all known medicinal plants.” 3 In ancient Islam, travelers shared knowledge of the plants medicinal value and the prophet Mohammad never explicitly forbid the consumption of cannabis but historical records show that the attitudes towards cannabis in the Islamic region have varied over time.
Even in the early 1600s, a law passed in Virginia required hemp to be grown on farms within the colony. Hemp was even considered a form of currency. When new products, such as cotton, were imported, hemp production began to fall. At the end of the Civil War, the plant gained traction as an ingredient in medicines and tinctures.
Up until the late 1880s, little was written in Western society about the medical usage of cannabis. But then the work of William O’Shaughnessy, an Irish physician working in India, gained notice in Europe. Scientists began to study the medicinal value of cannabis. Early observational evidence supported the use of cannabis plants high in CBD (Go CBD!) Queen Victoria’s physician even found “Indian hemp by far the most useful of drugs.” 4
Photo credit: Kohler's Book of Medicinal Plants, 1897
Fast forward to 1910 where Mexican refugees brought, what they referred to as, marijuana with them as they fled the violence of the Mexican Revolution. The plant became popular among people who rejected conventional society. Cannabis took on my different names ranging from reefer, marijuana, pot and more. “Reefer Madness” was in full effect.
In the 1920s, prohibition was repealed, and lawmakers decided to turn their attention towards marijuana. The plant was used by those who went against conventional society including jazz musicians, blacks and Mexicans. Lawmakers began to see the plant as a threat.
In 1937, marijuana became illegal in America by the passing of the Marihuana Tax Act and removing cannabis from the United States Pharmacopeia. A couple of years later, opponents of the plant began to claim that marijuana caused insanity, violence, crime, and death. 5 Cannabis was listed as a Schedule 1 drug according to The Controlled Substance Act of 1970 due to its “high potential for abuse and no medical use.” 6
Around the same time, new medical uses were discovered. One of the new medical uses included cannabis use to curb or stop uncontrollable nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy. Clinical studies lead to the creation of Marinol or Dronabinol, synthetic THC marketed as a pharmaceutical.
A schoolteacher by the name of Robert Randall suffered from glaucoma. Arrested for using cannabis to keep him from going blind. In 1976, Robert sued and became the first legal cannabis smoker in the United States forcing the government to provide him with the plant.
Today, society relies heavily on pharmaceutical drugs marketed for its treatment of various illnesses. However, that treatment does not come without side effects. One side effect can cause another symptom resulting in the patient taking yet another pharmaceutical drug. This can cause a never-ending cycle.
Here we are in 2019. Cannabis is medically accessible in many states and even recreational in a few. Although we have come a long way and salute those who advocate for this plant, progress still needs to be made. As always, plants make better chemists than humans.
Martin Booth, Cannabis: A History (New York: Picador, 2005).
J. Russell Reynolds, “On the Therapeutical Uses and toxic Effects of Cannabis indica,” The Lancet 135, no. 3473 (1890): 637-38