Medical Cannabis 101: A Brief History
In 2008, a team of archaeologists discovered what’s probably the world’s oldest weed stash inside a shaman’s tomb in the Gobi Desert. The stash was estimated to be around 2,700 years old. Weighing almost two pounds (about one kilo), it was found in one of the graves at Yanghai Tombs. The stash was placed near the shaman’s head, together with other items.
In case you’re wondering, the archaeologists didn’t smoke the weed. It had decomposed through the millennia and had long ago lost its potency. This marijuana stash is the oldest in the world and, according to scientists, the plant is similar to modern cannabis.
However, since there weren’t any pipes, bongs, or any other objects commonly associated with weed use, scientists aren’t sure how the weed was consumed, or whether it was used for some sort of ritual, medicinal, or recreational purpose. Moreover, there’s also a good chance that the stash isn’t as fun as the ‘stash’ from Nugg Club.
But one thing’s sure: marijuana use is thousands of years old.
Marijuana as Medicine in Ancient Times
The earliest evidence that archaeologists had so far unearthed regarding marijuana use was in a Stone Age village in Taiwan, dated about 10,000 years old. They found evidence of hemp use, which is a variety of the cannabis plant. Hemp was an agricultural crop whose fiber was used for clothes and rope; ancient people also used hemp’s seed for food as well as the oil derived from the plant.
From food, it’s easy enough for people to discover that it also had medicinal purposes. Medicinal use of the plant first spread in China, then throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Back then, cannabis was used as a treatment for pain and various ailments. But doctors, or perhaps more accurately, ‘shamans,’ warned people about it–using it too much caused people to see ‘demons.’
Around 2700 BCE, a Chinese emperor called Shen Neng (also considered as the Father of Chinese Medicine) was prescribing marijuana tea for various ailments, like malaria, poor memory, rheumatism, gout, and others.
Marijuana in China, India, and Japan during ancient times was used not only for recreation but also for religious and medical use. In the Vedas, India’s ancient religious texts, cannabis is mentioned as being one of the ingredients of bhang, a medicinal drink mixed with marijuana paste, ghee, milk, and other spices. Bhang as a traditional medicinal drink is still used in India today and is an important part of Hindu religious festivals.
Ancient Egypt also has records that mention cannabis being used as medicine to treat inflammation. A Chinese medical book, which is dated around 100 A.D., also lists the medicinal properties of the marijuana plant.
In 200 A.D., a Chinese surgeon was recorded using wine mixed with marijuana as an anesthetic. Chinese physicians during this period used cannabis oil, leaves, and roots as a treatment for constipation, tapeworm, blood clots, and hair loss.
During the Middle Ages, marijuana was a popular drug in the Middle East. Probably since alcoholic drinks were forbidden in Islam, smoking hashish became popular. Also, the plant was an important ingredient in traditional medicine in the Arab world.
In Europe, during this period, cannabis was a big part of folk medicine. The plant was used for treating cough, jaundice, and tumors. Marijuana use was mainly medicinal, and not used for religion or any rituals like in India. Medieval doctors had also warned people of excessive marijuana use; too much use purportedly caused sterility and other undesirable conditions.
In the late 1700s, there were a few medical journals in America that suggested using hemp roots and seeds for treating various kinds of ailments, such as incontinence and skin inflammation. William O’Shaugnessy, an Irish doctor who worked for the British East India Company, prescribed cannabis for rheumatism and nausea caused by various maladies.
In 1906, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was created to regulate patent medicines and others that have addictive ingredients like morphine and cocaine, which resulted in people getting unknowingly addicted. Although marijuana wasn’t included in the regulation, the FDA’s creation did signal the start of chemical substances regulation.
Moreover, it was also during this period that the recreational use of marijuana was spreading, which was said to be popularized by Mexican immigrants. In 1914, drug use was officially declared a crime under the Harrison Act. By 1937, 23 states have declared cannabis illegal. The Marijuana Tax Act was also passed, which made non-medical marijuana illegal.
Finally, in 1970, cannabis was declared as a Schedule I drug–lumped together with the more dangerous and addictive drugs like heroin. Schedule I drugs are also classified as having no accepted medical use and aren’t safe to consume even under a doctor’s supervision.
Since then, the trend against marijuana had eased. In 1996, California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana use. Today, the medical use of marijuana is legal in 36 U.S. states, while in 15 others, marijuana is completely legal.
Medicine derived from cannabis is usually prescribed for children with epilepsy and for cancer patients to alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy. It’s also prescribed for patients with Parkinson’s, HIV/AIDs, multiple sclerosis, or Crohn’s disease.
There had been studies that have shown the benefits of marijuana for medical use. Currently, there are four cannabinoid drugs–Marinol, Epidiolex, Syndros, and Cesamet–that are available in the U.S. for prescription use. Countries around the world have also legalized medical marijuana, but there are still hundreds of countries where cannabis use, medicinal or recreational, is illegal.
Marijuana’s medicinal use is thousands of years old. However, there were some backlashes against drug use in the 20th century, which included marijuana. But as research for the plants’ medical use grows, marijuana is now accepted as a treatment for certain ailments, including epilepsy.