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Looking at the History of Medical Marijuana

by Melissa Bell
4 minutes read

The cannabis plant, also known colloquially as marijuana, weed, or pot, has been used by humans for various purposes for thousands of years. Though it’s popularly known as a recreational drug, its primary use in many ancient cultures was as an herbal medicine, a practice that likely began in Asia around 500 BC. In modern times, research on the medicinal potentials of cannabis usually focus on its ability to alleviate nausea, chronic pain, spasticity of the muscles, and other similar symptoms.

Cannabis has been investigated as a potential treatment for a numerous of medical conditions, including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Crohn’s disease, glaucoma, epilepsy, and even mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and schizophrenia. However, the legal status of cannabis for both medical and recreational use varies from country to country. Criminalization in certain jurisdictions often slows the progress of extensive medical research on the herb.

Whether you’re a newcomer to marijuana or a seasoned weed user, you’ll definitely want to learn more about its long and fascinating history as a medical treatment. Reading through this quick look on the history of medical marijuana will undoubtedly make booking your next weed delivery a more meaningful experience.


Medical Cannabis in Non-Western Civilizations

The earliest known instances of cannabis being used for medical purposes date back to around 2700 BC, when the Chinese emperor Shen Nung prescribed cannabis tea for more than 100 ailments, including rheumatism, gout, malaria, and even memory problems. The drug’s popularity as an herbal remedy proceeded to spread throughout Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa.

Cannabis is thought to have been especially widely disseminated in India, where it was used for many medical purposes—including as an anti-convulsant, diuretic, anti-inflammatory treatment, and an analgesic, to name a few. Historical evidence also exists of the drug’s use in Arabic medicine for epilepsy and in Persian medicine for gout and infectious wounds. By the 15th century, cannabis was also widely used in Africa to treat diseases like dysentery and malaria and facilitate childbirth.

Interest in Medical Cannabis in the West

In the Western world, cannabis is documented as a common herbal remedy throughout the classical and Hellenistic eras, particularly by the physicians Claudius Galen and Dioscorides. The latter prescribed it especially for earaches and toothaches. Wealthy women of Roman high society were also known to use cannabis to relieve labor pains. Cannabis continued to be regarded as a valuable medical treatment throughout Europe from the Middle Ages onward.

Serious medical research into the therapeutic potentials of cannabis, however, would only come into its own in the West around the 19th century. The Irish doctor William O’Shaughnessy is identified as the first physician to explore marijuana’s medical uses. O’Shaughnessy observed the drug’s use in India, subsequently tested it on animals for safety, and began prescribing it to his own patients as a treatment for epilepsy, rheumatism, tetanus, and even rabies. His findings on the medical properties of cannabis were published in 1843 and paved the way for greater interest in the herb in Western medical circles.

Early research on medical cannabis peaked from 1840 to 1900, when Western scientists published more than 100 papers recommending it for a wide variety of discomforts and illnesses. However, this interest would decline closer to the end of the 19th century due to multiple factors, including the development of synthetic drugs like barbiturates, aspirin, and chloral hydrate. These substances were deemed more chemically stable and therefore more reliable as pain relievers than medical cannabis.

In the United States, the passing of anti-marijuana legislation would also severely limit research into medical cannabis. The earliest act of this kind was the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which imposed extremely high taxes on cannabis and eventually led to the substance’s exclusion from the United States Pharmacopoeia in 1941. The Boggs Act in 1951 and the Narcotic Control Act in 1956 further served to intensify the clampdown on marijuana in the US. In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act declared cannabis fully prohibited under federal law.

Evolving Legal Discourse around Medical Cannabis in the US     

Cannabis use and distribution remain illegal under federal law in the US today. However, several state-level marijuana liberalization policies have passed in the last few decades. California was the first state in the country to pass legislation on medical marijuana in 1996. This law, known as Proposition 215 or the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, permits patients to use prescribed medical marijuana for certain specified medical conditions without incurring state penalties. In the years since the passing of Prop. 215, many other states have approved similar laws.

As cannabis science has advanced over time, legislation pertaining to its use has likewise changed. As of 2020, cannabis has been fully legalized for both medical and recreational use in 11 states—namely California, Washington, Nevada, Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Alaska, Oregon, Maine, Vermont and Illinois—and in the District of Columbia. There are 26 states to date that have elected to decriminalize cannabis, which means that individuals possessing small amounts of cannabis for personal consumption won’t face legal prosecution.

Centuries’ worth of anecdotal evidence supports the use of cannabis for medical purposes, and contemporary science is only just beginning to catch up. As further research is conducted, legislation surrounding medical cannabis, cultivation and pharmaceutical development practices, and patient perspectives on the drug will surely evolve further.

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