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Understanding the History of Medical Cannabis

Updated: Nov 25, 2023

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History of Medical Cannabis

An overview of the history of the use of medical hemp in the United States. Those who think medical cannabis has been in common use only since the mid ‘90s, or maybe since the hippy revolution of the late 1960s, are a few thousand years off. Medical applications based on cannabis have been employed for millennia in most cultures of the world, especially India, Asia, the Middle East, South Africa, and South America.

A 1914 photo of Texas.
Cannabis tinctures were common.

According to the late pioneering researcher and doctor Dr. Tod Mikuriya, hemp and cannabis have been used in the medical practices of a range of cultures for several millennia. “In India the use of hemp preparations as a remedy was described before 1000 B.C. In Persia, cannabis was known several centuries before Christ. In Assyria, about 650 B.C., its intoxicating properties were noted,” wrote the celebrated scientist in 1969.

"In India the use of hemp preparations as a remedy was described before 1000 B.C. In Persia, cannabis was known several centuries before Christ."

Despite today's prohibition, hundreds of medical cannabis products were mainstream in the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In fact, commercially available cannabis tinctures were the primary form of pain relief until aspirin was introduced in the early twentieth century (patented by Bayer in 1900, aspirin was sold first as a powder; tablets didn’t became available until 1915).

That's right: Until the dawn of the 20th century, pot—albeit in tincture form, not smoked—was the primary form of pain killer in the United States. One hundred years ago, if a young girl skinned her knee, she was given a marijuana tincture, not an orange and white Bayer aspirin.

History of Medical Cannabis: 10,000 Years

History of Medical Cannabis. The medical use of cannabis is likely more than 10,000 years old. Historical evidence from the Bronze Age (in the 3rd millennium BC) reveals cultures that inhaled cannabis smoke, as indicated by the discovery of charred cannabis seeds in a ritual brazier (primitive barbeque) at a burial site in what is presently Romania.

An antique cannabis indica tincture bottle with a faded label.
Pot legal until 1937.

It is estimated that the hemp plant evolved about 28 million years ago and originated on the Tibetan Plateu, according to a 2019 study conducted by the University of Vermont entitled "Cannabis in Asia: Its Center of Origin and Early Cultivation." "From there, cannabis first dispersed west [into Europe and] then east [into] eastern China," reported the study's authors.

A 2019 study entitled "The Origins of Cannabis Smoking: Chemical Residue Evidence from the First Millennium BCE in the Pamirs" reported that the earliest detected use of cannabis involved the consumption avenues of ingestion (eating) and inhalation (smoking). However, no evidence has been shown for the prevalence of pipes for smoking during that era. "Smoking pipes were likely introduced to Eurasia from the New World, and no clear evidence exists for them in Central Asia before the modern era," reported the researchers.

"The chemical analysis reveals ancient cannabis burning and suggests high levels of psychoactive chemicals, indicating that people may have been cultivating cannabis and possibly actively selecting for stronger specimens," reported the study.

"During the regin of Chinese Emperor Chen Nung, 5,000 years ago, cannabis was recommended for malaria, rheumatism, constipation, and menstrual cramps."

Solid evidence also comes from the reign of Chinese Emperor Chen Nung, 5,000 years ago, when cannabis was recommended for malaria, rheumatism, constipation, and menstrual cramps. In 1621, nearly half a millennia ago, English clergyman Robert Burton suggested cannabis for the treatment of depression.

In the United States, medical cannabis became common in the mid-nineteenth century. Doctors in the 1800s literally understood the benefits of cannabis better than contemporary physicians, publishing more than 100 papers on the topic. In 1854, cannabis was listed in the United States Dispensatory (an unofficial listing of medical drugs) and commercial remedies based on cannabis were readily available in drugstores and pharmacies in every community.

Dentists even used it in the mouth and on the tongue as a topical anesthetic. According to the late Dr. Lester Grinspoon, a professor at Harvard Medical School and medical marijuana expert, some pharmacists attending the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia "carried ten pounds or more of hashish."

William O'Shaughnessy
William O'Shaughnessy

Golden Age of Medical Cannabis

In 1833, Irish medical doctor William O’Shaughnessy assumed a position in Calcutta, India as a surgeon with the East India Company. This began the doctor's 16 years of obsessive and detailed research of the medicinal efficacy of the hemp plant in India, which transpired from 1833 until 1941 and again from 1852 to 1860. It was for research during this second stage of his research that Queen Victoria knighted O'Shaughnessy.

"All classes of persons...consume the drug...producing ecstatic happiness, a persuasion of high rank, a sensation of flying, voracious appetite, and intense aphrodisiac desire."

In 1839, O'Shaughnessy wrote about his observations of the effects of cannabis as employed by the local indigenous people. "All classes of persons...consume the drug; that it is a most fascinating in its effects, producing ecstatic happiness, a persuasion of high rank, a sensation of flying, voracious appetite, and intense aphrodisiac desire."

The doctor conducted and documented patient case studies (rudimentary human trails studies) and noted the value of cannabis when applied to a range of disease states, including cholera, convulsions (epilepsy), rheumatism, tetanus, and even rabies. Regarding the herb's use in the treatment of epilepsy and other diseases resulting in seizures, he labeled cannabis "an anti-convulsive remedy of the greatest value."

O'Shaughnessy Experimented with Animals

O'Shaughnessy experimented with cannabis on a variety of animals, including rabbits, pigs, and cows. After perceiving the plant to be safe for consumption by all mammals, the doctor began conducting scientific experiments involving humans.

The researcher's work on animals is especially interesting. O'Shaughnessy noted the different effects resulting from cannabis consumption by different types of animals. He wrote that cats, crows, dogs, fish, pigs, and vultures "invariably and speedily exhibited the intoxicating influence of the drug." For grazing animals (cows, horses, goats, and sheep) and monkeys, the doctor noted "only...trivial effects from any dose...administered."

He wrote that cats, crows, dogs, fish, dogs, pigs, and vultures "invariably and speedily exhibited the intoxicating influence of the drug."

J.R. Reynolds & Queen Victoria

In 1890, British physician J.R. Reynolds published his 30 years of experience with cannabis, recommending it for multiple conditions. For insomnia, he said, "I have found nothing comparable in utility to a moderate dose of Indian hemp."

Reynolds—like many contemporary doctors 130 years later—believed that cannabis was useful for treating migraine headaches, epilepsy, asthma, depression, and painful cramps. In his position as the court physician to Queen Victoria, he infamously prescribed a cannabis tea for her menstrual cramps.

J.B. Mattison & Cannabis for Pain

In 1891, American doctor and author J.B. Mattison reported that cannabis prevented migraine attacks and blocked the pain of existing migraine headaches. Mattison's results were later supported by Canadian physician William Osler (one of the four founding professors of Johns Hopkins Hospital), who wrote that marijuana was "probably the most satisfactory remedy" for migraines.

An antique photo of a city.
Doctors prescribed cannabis.

One author labeled the 100 years between 1837 and 1937 as the Golden Age of Medical Cannabis. During that time, it was a common medical ingredient in a wide variety of commercially available pharmaceutical treatments. In fact, one museum has identified more than 600 medical products involving cannabis as a chief ingredient prior to its prohibition the the U.S. government in 1937.

"Cannabis use for medical purposes began to decline around 1890 for a few reasons, none of which are related to prohibition."

Cannabis Use Declines Around 1890

Cannabis use for medical purposes began to decline around 1890 for a few reasons, none of which are related to prohibition (which didn't begin until 1911, at the state level in Massachusetts).

  • Cannabis potency was too unpredictable, likely due to the relatively poor plant genetics of the day.

  • The introduction of the hypodermic syringe in the 1850s allowed a variety of drugs and opiates to be directly injected, delivering quick pain relief (cannabis, which is not water soluble, can’t be administered by injection).

  • More profitable and predictable synthetic drugs, such as aspirin and barbiturates, became available.

Unfortunately, these drugs also carry the risk of death. More than a thousand people die each year in the United States alone from bleeding produced by aspirin. Cannabis, on the other hand, while being more difficult to administer in a standardized fashion due to varying potency, to this day has produced no documented deaths.

History of Medical Cannabis: Today

History of Medical Cannabis. In August 2013, the National Institutes of Health stated (on the National Cancer Institute website) that cannabinoids (the active chemicals found in marijuana) appear to have “significant analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects, anti-tumor effects, and anti-cancer effects, including the treatment of breast and lung cancer.” Despite endorsements such as this, many in Congress and within the ranks of law enforcement continue to adamantly oppose research into the merits of cannabis as medicine.

An old ad for Cannabis Americana tincture.
37 states have medical pot.

Today, 37 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use in some way. 24 states and D.C. have legalized recreational adult use in some form (despite Schedule 1 narcotic categorization by the federal government).

"Today, 37 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use in some way."

Outside the U.S., many countries allow medical or adult use pot at the federal level, including Canada, France, Israel, Mexico, the Netherlands, Romania, Cambodia, and the Czech Republic. Even in North Korea, one of the most notorious and oppressive totalitarian regimes in the world, marijuana is, ironically, legal.

Increasingly, legalization of cannabis use for all purposes is sweeping the nation and the globe. The few examples of full legalization that exist, such as Uruguay, Denver, Seattle, Portland, and many parts of California, are proving to the world that legalization can be good for society, the economy, and even help maintain a crumbling infrastructure of schools and roads.

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