The Origins & History of Medical Cannabis

The reputation that marijuana has had of being the drug of choice for 60’s hippies, 70’s stoners, and 80’ slackers who just wanted to get high and drift off into a psychedelic haze has been around for decades, and primarily fueled the opinions of the U.S. public. Granted, the images are associated with the recreational drug culture, but there’s also a medicinal Cannabis culture — a culture in which medical breakthroughs in the treatment of various medical conditions is bringing about a paradigm shift in the attitudes of people from all walks of life, doctors and medical professionals, and governments rethinking previous and longstanding bans and restrictions.

Cannabis itself is in a category of plants that’s comprised of three varieties and seven sub-varieties. Medically speaking, Cannabis has been used for thousands of years to treat ailments and illnesses from ancient and medieval times. The flowers, seeds, buds, and roots of cannabis plants used to treat ailments were turned into oils, drinks, powders, pastes, and edibles—much like today.

Where it all Began

The roots of using cannabis for medicinal purposes can be traced to ancient China, where Hemp seeds were used for food. Hemp was an agricultural crop commonly grown in the agricultural fields of China. The plant, when harvested, provided high-protein seeds that were used for food and oil, and fiber that was used for making rope and clothes.

As a variety of plant from the Cannabis family, hemp doesn’t share the high-inducing effects found in marijuana. Along with China in other parts of the world, hemp had many other uses in addition to providing food for populations of people.

During ancient and medieval times when there was no highly controlled restrictions to the use of cannabis, so the plant was used regularly to treat pain and ailments, perhaps in a much more natural and unrefined way when compared to today’s methods. Physicians of the time would mix the plant with other medicines and teas which would help to relieve pain and treat symptoms.

Medicinal cannabis’ use caught on from its origins in China, and traveled throughout Asia reaching the Middle East and Africa. During ancient times, cannabis was used quite regularly to treat both pain and a number of health issues. Even in those days, doctors were leery about overuse and alerted others to possible negative effects. They even thought that it might cause people to see imaginary demons!

Before cannabis became listed in the U.S. as a Schedule I drug that classified it as “dangerous” as LSD and heroin, it was an integral part of the American pharmacopoeia as early as 1850 as an effective medicinal treatment for afflictions such as typhus, cholera, leprosy, dysentery, insanity, rabies, tetanus, neuralgia, tonsillitis, anthrax, uterine bleeding, and menstrual symptoms.

A Cannabis Chronology

Here’s a better picture of how long cannabis has benefited the health of people thousands
of years ago in ways that are very similar to today:

  • 2737 B.C.: Compiled based on Chinese legend, the Emperor Shen Neng is regarded as the first of the major leaders from the ancient world who found marijuana to be applicable for treating a variety of illnesses. Some of the major illnesses that were treated included gout, malaria, diminished memory, and rheumatism to name a few.
  • 2400-1400 B.C.: In India, the use of cannabis was tied to many different aspects of life: religious, spiritual, medical, and recreational. India was very connected to the different aspects of life that could be impacted and affected positively with the use of cannabis. Now as then, cannabis is used to mix into special drinks designed to enhance enjoyment as well as treat medical conditions. One of the drinks that is popular even today is “bhang”, which is a cannabis mix of paste made from buds and leaves of the cannabis plant that’s mixed with milk, ghee, and spices. Bhang has many medical benefits that have been a part of India’s medical life for thousands of years and apparently continue to be.
  • 1550 B.C.: The Ebers Papyrus (texts that were written on Papyrus paper) of ancient Egypt are documents that capture ways to treat inflammation with cannabis that may contain similarities to methods used today.
  • 100 A.D.: A medical book called the Shennong Bencaojing from ancient China confirms what we in the modern era know to be true: the flowers, seeds, and leaves of the cannabis plant have valuable uses for medical applications.
  • 200 A.D.: The first surgeon recorded to use cannabis to anesthetize a patient during surgery was Hua Tuo from China. By grounding the plant into a powder and mixing it with wine, the patient fell into a “cannabis intoxication” or mázui. There were other uses for cannabis that Chinese physicians of the time incorporated, such as using the roots, leaves, and oil of cannabis plants as a means of treating hair loss, tapeworms, blood clots, and constipation. Even in 200 A.D. the science of medicinal cannabis appeared to be light years ahead of its time.

The Middle Ages

The popularity of cannabis in the Middle East during the Middle Ages flourished. This was primarily due to the fact that wine was forbidden in Islam, so drinking was not an option. Hashish was what Muslims turned to for a form of intoxication. The Arab world was familiar with cannabis, also known then as “grass”, just like today. Traditional Arabic medicine benefited from the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes.
100–1000s A.D.: In Europe during the Middle Ages, cannabis was intermingled with folk medicine, which is comprised of learnings from previous generations and within various societies that preceded modern medicine. Cannabis treatments included tumors, coughs, and jaundice. And even back then, moderation was encouraged by physicians of the time to discourage overuse which could lead to more serious medical problems.

Modern Era

So, not quite what we think of when we think of the “modern” era, but compared to the ancient world, it’s close enough!

1500s: South America was introduced to cannabis by the Spanish, however, hemp was the dominating plant during the colonization of North America. Hemp was used practically, for making clothes, bags, paper, and ropes for the maritime industry. And because it was slave labor that helped to build the hemp industry, cannabis wasn’t known to be a drug that produced a psychoactive high or had medicinal benefits until years later.

1700s: The suggestion to use hemp seeds and roots as treatments for varied health conditions was coming from American medical journalists. Irish doctor William O’Shaughnessy praised the benefits of medical cannabis in the treatment of England and America’s cases of rheumatism and nausea.

1906: With morphine addiction rates on a rampage in the U.S., many U.S. citizens were victims of heroin, opium, and morphine addictions. With the creation of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the opium and morphine addiction crises were given more attention than cannabis or heroin, but drug policy in the U.S. was about to take a big turn. It was during this time that Mexican immigrants arriving across the border introduced cannabis to the U.S., and the popularity of recreational drug use started to take hold. Here is where the distinctions leading to the stigmas start to take shape. Americans looked down upon those who smoked “marijuana” and classified them as a debaucherous and troubled lot, which included associating cannabis with “lower class” criminals.

1914: The Harrison Act officially declares drug use a crime.

1937: Even though there is still some provision for medical cannabis on a small scale, 23 states outlawed marijuana. The Marihuana Tax Act makes using the drug illegal. Although cannabis was still being used for some medical purposes, it was dramatically controlled.

1970: By now, marijuana had become classified as a Schedule I drug, making it synonymous with drugs much more dangerous. The medical industry turned its back on cannabis, deeming it as having no acceptable medical value. From this point on, no additional research was allowed——until just the recent past.

Where are we now…and what’s to come?

So here we are now in 2018, and so far, over 23 states have legalized the use of medicinal cannabis, which is a good step forward! People with certain qualifying conditions are able to get medicinal cannabis from dispensaries, but of course, only in the states where it’s legal.

Studies have explored some of the therapeutic benefits of medical cannabis, but the research is still restricted because scientists have no way to obtain the drug to study it.
Nevertheless, studies are still being conducted and revealing breakthroughs in the use of medicinal cannabis to treat even more medical conditions such as schizophrenia, seizures, migraine headaches, and even help in healing broken bones.

The general consensus is that medicinal cannabis has many great benefits to offer the medical establishment and especially the patients who can benefit from its healing properties to help treat medical conditions and symptoms that would otherwise be under prescribed medications exclusively. In states where legalization of medicinal cannabis has occurred, patients have been able to seek out new and more effective treatments for their conditions which have gotten the attention of those in position to make a change…and we’re counting on it!

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