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The emerging view of marijuana as a medicine is far from new. Civilizations have long been using the plant for a variety of reasons. References as far back as 2900 BCE in ancient China and its therapeutic uses have been used in India since about 1000 BCE. In this article, we will go over the history of marijuana as medicine in the past, present, and possible future.
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Medical Marijuana in the Past
The exact origin of marijuana is still unknown, though it is believed to have first been cultivated in Asia. Historical records date this as beginning about six thousand years ago in China (Li, 1974). The Chinese people used the plant for food, textiles, and medicine. It is said that Shennong, a Chinese deity, used the plant to cure many diseases.
By the year 1000 BCE, the use of cannabis as medicine had spread to India. Cannabis was mentioned in the Vedas as a source of joy and happiness. Bhang is thought to have been made around this time and has become an important part of Indian culture. During the celebration of Holi, for example, the drink bhang lassi is made by mixing crushed cannabis leaves (bhang), milk/yogurt, and other ingredients such as sugar or spices. By ingesting bhang, it was believed that anything from fever and sunstroke to lisping and alertness could be cured. A few hundred years later, in the Zoroastrian text the Vendidad, bhang is called Zoroaster’s (an ancient Iranian prophet) “good narcotic”.
If we move further ahead to the beginning of the common era, or anno domini, the Chinese Pen Ts’ao Ching lists marijuana as a cure for many diseases. Later, the Chinese surgeon Hua Tao would brew a liquid called “mafeisan” made from cannabis, wine, and other herbs as an anesthetic. The use of medicinal cannabis continued to grow in China through the coming centuries and was written about in the Compendium of Materia Medica during the Ming dynasty, the most complete book ever written in traditional Chinese medicine.
During the 1600’s, the therapeutic uses of cannabis started gaining ground in western countries. An important example being its use to treat depression as stated in The Anatomy of Melancholy. Low THC marijuana, called hemp, was being grown across the British Colonies in North America and being used for many different purposes. It was claimed that hemp could help gout, pain, and inflammation when ingested.
In Europe through eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, hemp and marijuana were brought back into the continent from the Middle East and Asia and started becoming more accepted as a result. During Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, the troops started using hashish to the point it was banned in 1800. Though this was largely ignored, and seeds were brought back to France by the troops, and the effects of cannabis on pain started to become more widely accepted.
In the mid nineteenth century, the US accepted marijuana into the US Pharmacopeia. The uses of marijuana were widespread, and it was used to treat diseases such as cholera, insanity, and many others.
In the twentieth century, cannabis had been used to treat asthma in Asia, impotency in India, and pain in the US. By the 1940’s, though, public opinion had shifted greatly. Marijuana extracts for pain were replaced by other drugs, and the growth of hemp had greatly decreased.
Medical Marijuana Now
The 1960’s marked a huge point in medical marijuana history. In 1964, a lab in Israel isolated THC for the first time (Gaoni and Mechoulam, 1964). From this discovery, research on cannabis was able to make large strides. Ways to synthesize the chemical were discovered, and scientific studies of its medicinal uses were able to take place.
In the 1990’s, the endocannabinoid system was uncovered. Previously unknown cannabinoid receptors were located across the body and brain. Studies have shown the endocannabinoid system to have effects on nearly every part of the body, from immune cells to the cells of the hippocampus. This has opened research into treatments for epilepsy, Parkinson’s, cancer, and a huge number of other diseases.
In the twenty first century, research on the medicinal uses of marijuana has led to the legalization and accepted medical use of the plant and its derivatives. Medical marijuana is being utilized by patients to ease the symptoms of many illnesses and the FDA has approved a pure form of CBD to be prescribed to patients who suffer from two rare forms of epilepsy. Interestingly, many of the reasons older civilizations were using marijuana as medicine has had recent scientific backing.
Medical Marijuana in the Future
Clinical and scientific research is constantly finding new and novel uses and pathways for medical marijuana. Funding is increasing along with public interest and more people are separating recreational use from medical use. Importantly, higher quality and larger studies are being done and the scientific community is becoming more aware of this. The future of medical marijuana is very exciting, and the quantity and quality of evidence of its therapeutic uses is growing.
Li, H. (1973). An archaeological and historical account of cannabis in China. Economic Botany,28(4), 437-448. doi:10.1007/bf02862859
Gaoni, Y., & Mechoulam, R. (1964). Isolation, Structure, and Partial Synthesis of an Active Constituent of Hashish. Journal of the American Chemical Society,86(8), 1646-1647. doi:10.1021/ja01062a046