The history of medical use of cannabis parallels that of recreational and spiritual use in many ways, but this aspect of use has been generally more tolerated by those inclined to condemn the pursuit of altered consciousness. The world's oldest surviving text on medical drugs, the Chinese Shen-Nung Pen-tshao, dating back to the reign of Emperor Shen Nung about 5,000 years ago specifically acknowledges cannabis' value for treating ailments including rheumatic pain, digestive disorders, malaria, absentmindedness, "female problems" and as an analgesic during surgery.
Through trade the plant made its way next to India where, according to Professor Lester Grinspoon it was prescribed "to quicken the mind, lower fevers, induce sleep, cure dysentery, stimulate appetite, improve digestion, relieve headaches, and cure venereal disease."(4) Once in Africa it became known as a treatment for malaria, fevers, snakebites, dysentery, and as a pain reliever during childbirth, among other things. In fact, every country that eventually embraced the cannabis plant came to use it for various physical ailments.
By the 17th century medicinal use began to surface in Western Europe where cannabis was prescribed for many conditions such as skin inflammation, coughs, venereal disease, and incontinence. It was soon compared to opium for its broad-spectrum positive effects.(5) Queen Victoria's personal physician, Sir John Russell Reynolds, brought it into further legitimacy using it for appetite stimulation, insomnia, and headaches. He wrote that "When pure and administered carefully, it is one of the most valuable medicines we possess."(6)
By 1840 Western physicians began to flock enthusiastically toward medical cannabis research. For the following 6 decades more than 100 major articles were published in scientific journals testing and, for the most part, validating all previously anecdotal evidence of therapeutic successes. Even psychotherapists became interested in studying the reported "mind-opening" effects cannabis had as a potential tool for solving patient's emotional problems.
The surgeon William B. O'Shaughnessy was instrumental in spreading interest amongst physicians in researching the substance. Working for the British East India Company in Calcutta, he took the telegraph to India, and cannabis to Britain.(7) A well-respected scientific investigator, he systematically studied Hindu medicinal practices, and concluded that cannabis had many legitimate medical uses. His greatest success was in treating muscle spasms for those afflicted with tetanus and rabies.(8) By the mid-1890's, most of the larger pharmaceutical companies, including Eli Lilly and Parke-Davis, had developed pharmaceutical preparations of the plant. Its medicinal use was well-respected and fully established.
Such success, however, proved fleeting. In the first few years of the 20th century, these same pharmaceutical companies made great strides in developing other drugs for general therapeutic use that had advantages over cannabis in that they were easier to purify and standardize.(9) Also, since it is not water soluble, cannabis was largely replaced by morphine and similar pain relievers which, unlike cannabis, could be injected both intra-muscularly and intravenously for immediate relief.
Cannabis remained in the United States pharmacopeia until the late 1930s when Congress passed The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 which prohibited doctors from prescribing it. Spokesmen from the American Medical Association (AMA) testified in opposition to the law, arguing its passage would severely compromise a physician's ability to utilize cannabis' medical potential.
In 1970, Congress passed the "Controlled Substances Act" which placed drugs in specific classifications relative to their therapeutic value and abuse potential. Politicians placed cannabis in Schedule I, the strictest classification available, and defined the drug as having no accepted medical value and a high potential for abuse. Cannabis remains a Schedule I drug today and physicians remain unable to legally prescribe it.
Since 1970 federally appointed government commissions in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom have concluded that cannabis and its constituents (known as cannabinoids) hold valuable potential as medicines. Despite their recommendations medical cannabis remains prohibited in most Western societies.
- Schultes, Richard E. "Man and Marijuana". Natural History, 1973; 82(7): 58-63, 80- 82.
- Bennett, Chris and Lynn & Judy Osburn. "Green Gold and the Tree of Life, Marijuana in Magic and Religion". Access Unlimited. Frazier Park, CA. 1995, p.4.
- Brecher, Edward M. and the Editors of Consumer Reports. "Licit and Illicit Drugs". Little, Brown & Company Ltd. Canada. 1972, p. 402.
- Grinspoon, Lester. "Marijuana: The Forbidden Medicine". Yale University Press. New Haven and London. 1997, p. 3
- Grinspoon, ibid., p.5.
- Reynolds, J.R. "On the Therapeutic Uses and Toxic Effects of Cannabis Indica". Lancet, 1890; 1: 637-638.
- Conrad, Chris. "Hemp for Health". Healing Arts Press. Los Angeles, CA. 1993, 1994, p.20.
- Conrad, ibid., p.21.
- Grinspoon, ibid., p.7.