If you were told that cannabis has never been used medically because it’s only use is to get people high, then you were told an “alternate fact”.
Real Fact: Until the late 1930’s cannabis was a highly regarded medicine that was used widely to alleviate various aches, pains, and illnesses that limit people from enjoying life and being productive.
The first recorded mention of cannabis was about 5000 years ago in the year 2737 BCE, in a region of the world we now call China. The emperor, Shen Nung, compiled the first compendium of Chinese medicinal herbs noting that cannabis was helpful for rheumatism, malaria, absent-mindedness, and beri-beri constipation (1). In India, cannabis is found in the ancient Sanskrit text, the Atharvaveda, which dates back approximately 3500 years (2). And written about 2500 years ago, is an account by the Greek historian Herodotus that includes cannabis. Herodotus traveled to the land of the Scythians (now a part of Russia) and observed them using hemp in burial rituals as well as recreationally to create a vapor bath (3).
Archeologists are also finding evidence that cannabis was widely used for a range of medical concerns. For example, cannabis residue has been found in the Pamir Mountain burial caves (in today’s Tajikistan) dating back to the first millennium BCE (4). Archeologists working in Siberia uncovered the remains of a young woman whose skeleton showed evidence of cancer, fractures, and other injuries along with a large quantity of cannabis in a nearby urn demonstrating that even 2500 years ago, cannabis was most likely used to help ease pain (5).
Speeding forward into the Common Era, the 11th century Old English Herbarium refers to topical applications of cannabis for swelling of the breast. And in 1696 Dr. Georg Rumpf writes of using cannabis leaves cooked with nutmeg to create a drink for women who “felt a great oppression in their breast, along with stabs, as if they had pleuritis" (6).
Approximately 130 years later, Dr. William O’Shaughnessy, an Irish physician, brought cannabis to England from India where he had traveled to work in local hospitals. While in India, Dr. O’Shaughnessy observed the use of cannabis to ease the pain of muscle spasms from rabies, tetanus and cholera. In India and then again in Europe, he began the first known scientific studies using cannabis for medicinal purposes (7). Along with his French counterpart Jacques-Joseph Moreau, O’Shaughnessy found cannabis to be a good analgesic (8) and began to use it for treating migraines, convulsions, sleeping issues, and melancholy.
By 1850 cannabis made its way into the US Pharmacopeia a compendium of drugs considered to be “most fully established and best understood” at the time. In 1860 records from the Ohio State Medical Society describe the success of cannabis in treating stomach pain, chronic coughs, psychosis, gonorrhea, and pain from childbirth (9). Then in 1898 The Lancet published Dr. Edward Birch’s experience of successfully treating opiate and chloral addiction with cannabis and his observations that “…because cannabis did not lead to physical dependence, it was found to be superior to the opiates for a number of therapeutic purposes" (10).
In the United States, the use of cannabis as a medicinal herb has a long history which got derailed for political and commercial reasons when the Marihuana Tax Act passed in 1937. Interestingly, Harry Anslinger who supported and promoted the act, was indifferent to cannabis in his early career as the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Prohibition. But as alcohol prohibition was coming to an end in 1933, Anslinger turned his focus toward cannabis as the new drug to prohibit, which just happened to coincided with the end of the Mexican Revolution. Anslinger partnered with the yellow press and William Randolph Hearst, who were known racists with anti-immigration sentiments, to present marijuana as a real and present danger and associate cannabis and its use with people fleeing Mexico and crossing into the US. This negative public campaign along with the Marihuana Tax Act, which was paid by physicians who prescribed and patients who used medicinal marijuana, ultimately led to a significant decrease in the use of cannabis for medical purposes. By 1941, cannabis was dropped from the US Pharmacopeia. And in the 1970’s, with passage of the Federal Drug Substances Act, cannabis became a schedule 1 drug indicating that it has no medicinal value, had high potential for abuse, and is dangerous.
Until Californians ratified Proposition 215, also known as the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, which decriminalizes the use and growing of cannabis for medical purposes, it had been illegal to grow and use any form of cannabis throughout the United States. Today, cannabis is still illegal under the Federal Drug Substance Act. However, more than 30 states have State laws that allow cannabis use for medical purposes and 11 states allow adult use of cannabis products.
As we enter the 21st century, serious efforts are being made to restore cannabis’ reputation as a plant that can be used to safely treat several medical conditions. PTCannabisInfo strives to read the relevant research and provide unbiased reporting of the current state of the literature.
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Mechoulam, R. Cannabinoids as Therapeutics. Milestones in Drug Therapy MDT. Birkhäuser Basel, 2005
Russo E. Cannabis in India: ancient lore and modern medicine. In: Mechoulam R. (eds) Cannabinoids as Therapeutics. Milestones in Drug Therapy MDT. Birkhäuser Basel, 2005.
Godley, AD. Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press, 1920
Ren, M. et al. The origins of cannabis smoking: Chemical residue evidence from the first millennium BCE in the Pamirs. Sci. Adv. June 2019; 5: eaaw1391.
Liesowska, A. Iconic 2500 year old Siberian Princess died from breast cancer, MRI reveals. The Siberian Times, 2014.