Cannabis is a truly ancient medicine. For as long as humanity has cultivated cannabis sativa—and our relationship with cannabis stretches back thousand of years—we’ve been using the plant for its potent medical benefits. Here’s a brief examination of the history of medical cannabis.
Some of the earliest references to medical cannabis pop up in China. In 2737 B.C., the Chinese emperor Shen Neng prescribed marijuana tea as a treatment for a wide array of maladies, including malaria, gout, rheumatism and—rather laughably—memory loss. By around 200 B.C., Chinese farmers had successfully cultivated hemp, using it to make everything from clothing to rope and, of course, medicine, according to Psychology Today. In 200 A.D., the Chinese medical book, Shennong Bencaojing, noted that cannabis could be used as an anesthetic. Apparently, the drug could be mixed with wine, and a patient would drink the cannabis-wine prior to surgery. Physicians also used cannabis oil, leaves, and its roots to treat tapeworms, constipation, and blood clots. Cannabis’ popularity as a medicinal drug bloomed in Asia, and eventually over the course of several hundred years, medical cannabis made its way outside of China probably via merchants and traders, spreading into other regions, such as India.
Bhang is an Indian drink made from cannabis paste, milk, ghee, and various spices. According to Medical Daily, bhang is referred to in the fourth book of the Vedas as having the ability to “release an individual from anxiety.” It could also boost a person’s mood, sharpen their mental prowess, and “remove wind and phlegm.” Bhang was even used to treat sunstroke and dysentery, as well. From around 1400 B.C. to 1600 B.C., medical cannabis made its way out of Asia and into the Middle East and Africa. Archeologists have found papyrus scrolls dating from around 1500 B.C. that list medical cannabis as a valuable medicine for the treatment of inflammation. Since Islam generally forbids the consumption of alcohol, cannabis became popular both as a recreational drug and as a medicine. Apparently, cannabis did appear in medieval Europe, and physicians sometimes used the plant to treat lung ailments—such as coughs—as well as tumors and jaundice. Medieval physicians though believed that overconsumption of cannabis could cause sterility, so they often warned against excessive use.
When the Spanish conquered the New World in the late 1500s, they brought cannabis to South America. However, cannabis never really took hold in the early American colonies—colonial farmers seemed to exclusively grow hemp. The plant was mostly used to make clothes, bags, rope, and paper. Beginning in the early 17th century and moving into the 18th century, American physicians began noting that hemp roots and seeds could be used to treat incontinence, inflammation, and various venereal diseases. An Irish doctor named William O’Shaughnessy helped to increase cannabis’ popularity in both the U.S. and England—he served as a physician with the British East India Company, and he witnessed firsthand how cannabis could be used to treat both rheumatism and nausea. By the early 1900s, pharmaceutical companies often added cannabis to various medicines and food items.
Unfortunately, increased federal regulations on medicinal items—along with anti-immigration fears of cannabis-smoking Central American migrants—helped to shift American public opinion on cannabis in the early 20th century. Eventually, cannabis went from being an important medicinal plant to a feared narcotic—though those fears were truly unfounded. However, as exhibited by cannabis’ rather unique history, physicians across the world have lauded medical cannabis for its health benefits for thousands of years. It’s only a matter of time until public opinion in the U.S. shifts completely, and the entirety of the nation begins to hopefully respect cannabis for the critical medical resource that it is.
*This blog lists the difference.