Cannabis History

17 May 2019

A brief history lesson on medical cannabis

How did we discover the medicinal properties of cannabis?

By Sylvester

Scepticism around medical cannabis still abounds, despite both its long history of worldwide medical use and modern day research backing up its diverse medical properties. Next time you find yourself debating someone who says that cannabis is not medicine, perhaps you want to keep some of these examples at the ready and give them a pot-ted history of this palliative plant.

The first known uses of cannabis

When we say history, we´re talking ancient history here. The first documented uses of cannabis as medicine date back to China, around 10,000 years ago. It was used in various pharmacopoeias as anaesthetic, as pain relief and for minor ailments like hair loss and constipation; with cannabis sativa or ‘dà má (麻)’ becoming one of the ‘50 fundamental herbs’ in Chinese medicine over time.

Ancient Egyptians also used cannabis, both for religious and cultural practices and for the medicinal benefits. The Papyrus Chester Beatty VI, part of the papyri collection of American mining magnate Chester Beatty, was a medical work dating from around 1200 BCE and is one of the oldest preserved medical documents still in existence. Among its herbal treatments and accompanying spells, is the use of cannabis to treat pain related to colorectal cancer and headaches. Other papyri from the period also include cannabis among their ingredients for medical preparations.

The original Papyrus scroll from the collection of Chester Beatty VI, mentioning cannabis as a medicine for colon cancer, among others. Coffeeshop Guru
The original Papyrus scroll from the collection of Chester Beatty VI, mentioning cannabis as a medicine for colon cancer, among others.

More recently, archaeologists here in the Netherlands found cannabis extract mixed with meadowsweet in a Bronze Age grave in the province of Gelderland. In 2012 it was confirmed that the herbal combination was largely cannabis combined with meadowsweet, suggestive of traditional methods for treating fevers and pain relief. Perhaps more recreational than medical, but in 2015, a team of South African anthropologists even found a pipe containing cannabis in…Shakespeare’s back garden (well that might explain all those dream sequences)

A picture of William Shakespeare while being high on cannabis at Coffeeshop Guru
What was in William Shakespeare's pipe? Many believe he consumed cannabis regularly. By the look on his face they might be right.

The Irish doctor, Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy was credited with first bringing medicinal cannabis to western medicine after witnessing its uses and benefits in India. A well-respected physician, O’Shaughnessy ran his own scientific experiments whilst working in Calcutta; to see if the local ‘old wives tales’ about the efficacy of cannabis were true. By 1839 he had concluded that it could be beneficial, especially for pain relief, but also in treatments for rheumatism, cholera, and rabies among other things. Most notable were his case studies into its effectiveness for treating convulsions which helped lay some of the groundwork for today’s epilepsy studies and the resulting pharmaceuticals now being developed.

A drawn portrait of Sir William Brooke O'Shaughnessy, the founder of medical cannabis research at Coffeeshop Guru
A portrait of Sir William Brooke O'Shaughnessy, the founder of modern medical cannabis research.

First prohibition of cannabis medicines

By the 19th century, cannabis extracts were common on the shelves of pharmacies throughout Europe and America. For everything from toothache, migraine, coughs, cystitis, and general pain relief. OK, back then they were still using laudanum, arsenic, cocaine and chloroform regularly in their lotions and potions too; but the widespread use seems indicative of some efficacy, and there was definitely no taboo around its use.

A collection of medicines containing cannabis from the turn of the 19th century at Coffeeshop Guru
A collection of medicines containing cannabis from the turn of the 19th century.

Cannabis first started being included under restrictive legislation in the late 1800’s when poison labeling, prescription-only drugs and opium laws began to be brought into force in various states across the U.S.. Some states included it along with opium type products, while others required prescriptions, some restricted sales to minors and many simply required it to be properly labeled. In the early 1900’s though, the poison laws were widely strengthened to include drugs considered addictive; and the popularity of hashish meant that in many places cannabis became a part of these. In 1914 the first ‘marihuana raid’ took place in a Mexican district of Los Angeles.

Drug crazed abandon: Fear mongering propaganda around cannabis

It was in 1936 that the now infamous propaganda movie Reefer Madness, was released in America; warning youths of the dangers of the madness, sexual proclivity and even violence that could come in the wake of smoking a joint. Cannabis was commonly used on the predominantly black jazz scene and among the Mexican immigrant population, as racism was commonplace throughout society, the two together helped cannabis become viewed as a dangerous substance which supposedly promoted anti-social behaviour among users. Rediscovered in the early 1970’s Reefer Madness became a favourite for satirisation by the global cannabis reform movement.

A poster of the 1936 motion picture "Reefer Madness" at Coffeeshop Guru
A poster of the 1936 motion picture "Reefer Madness"

Even though it remained seen as a medicine for a number of years afterwards, the 1938 Federal ‘Pure Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act’ though not banning the plant, cemented cannabis’ reputation as a “dangerous drug”; and much of this legislation remains in place in the U.S. today.

The war on cannabis intensified

The prohibition that followed in the 1970’s in the U.S., and as a consequence its knock-on effects around the world, is a story for a feature all on its own. In short, Richard Nixon, letting his personal judgement lead, ignored the recommendations of his own investigatory panel and made cannabis a Schedule I drug: one deemed thereby to not only be dangerous but to have no medical benefits, and so prohibiting not only cultivation and distribution but scientific experimentation too. Reagan’s War on Drugs in the 1980’s only strengthened this decision.

Modern day view on medicinal cannabis

Today, around the world, decriminalisation and increased scientific experimentation showing the efficacy of cannabis for various medicinal purposes is beginning to shift the mainstream opinion of cannabis in general, and medicinal cannabis in particular. In 2017, the German government voted unanimously to legalise medicinal cannabis for patients with MS, chronic pain (e.g. from cancer and terminal illness) and their legislation requires insurers to cover the cost of the medicine. In Canada, medicinal cannabis has been allowed since 2001 and in the UK the producers of Sativex are in the final stages of testing new non-psychoactive cannabis derivatives for treating childhood epilepsy and the like.

If the global cannabis reform movement keeps up the pressure, and the taboos around cannabis continue to come down among the general public, perhaps a time when cannabis medicines are back on pharmacists shelves is not so very far away.

Post author
Sylvester
Sylvester likes writing about culture, history and tech, digs cosmology, futurism and ukulele - and prefers to accompany all of these with a good bowl of Chocolope Kush
See more from Sylvester

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