The first known mention of cannabis as a medicine occurred in China in 2727 BC. It’s mentioned in Avesta, the Sacred Book of Knowledge of the Zoroastrian faith around 1000 BC. The Greeks and Romans reportedly used cannabis, not for its psychoactive ingredient, but as a medicine to treat inflammation and pain.
A 12th century philosopher and physician, Maimonides, wrote about the son of the Chamberlain of the Caliphate in Bagdad who was given hashish to treat epilepsy, and had to continue to smoke it throughout his lifetime to keep seizures at bay.
Evidence is abundant that cannabis was used as a medicine in ancient times in the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, Egypt, India, South Africa, China, and Greece.
19th Century Cannabis Extracts and Tinctures
Cannabis as a medicine experienced a renaissance in the 19th century with William Brooke O’Shaughnessy leading the way. He was an Irish physician working in India in 1838, and was highly successful in chemistry, toxicology, ethnobotany, clinical medicine, and telegraphy.
He learned that Indian hemp was being used to treat rheumatic diseases, tetanus, cholera and epilepsy. He documented the use of cannabis in India, distinguishing bhang (low grade leaves and flowers), ganja (female flowers), and charas (hashish). O’Shaughnessy successfully treated cholora patients. One of his patients suffering rabies experienced anxiety, a racing heart, and heavy sweating. The patient was given cannabis and was able to talk, eat, and sleep. Cannabis did not treat his rabies, and he eventually died, but O’Shaughnessy was able to document the palliative value as it gave him a “peaceful stupor”. (Russo)
O’Shaughnessy even experimented on his medical students and discovered that small doses of cannabis increased both pulse and appetite. He also experimented with dogs and horses. His most significant contribution to cannabis as a medicine was his work with people with epilepsy, especially children — one young patient went from multiple seizures to robust health with a single dose.
By 1841, O’Shaughnessy returned to England and took a large supply of cannabis medicines with him. As soon as he returned to Great Britain, he began educating doctors about cannabis and provided them with samples. Cannabis as a “new” medicine took root in England and migrated to America during this period.
More Conditions Treated
Michael Donovan was not a doctor, but a chemist and a licensed apothecary. In 1844, he published a monograph discussing the success of cannabis after patients had failed to get relief for neuropathic, musculoskeletal, and migraine pain with traditional medicines. He treated all types of neurological conditions including sciatica, tooth and neck pain, jaw pain, and rheumatic arm and thumb pain. In his monograph, Donovan said that O’Shaughnessy “brought to light a medicine possessed of a kind of energy which belongs to no other known therapeutic agent, and which is capable of effecting cures hitherto deemed nearly hopeless or altogether impracticable.” (Russo).
Another 19th century cannabis physician was Dominic Corrigan. In 1845, Corrigan treated two girls, 11 and 16, suffering from choreic movements of their face and body for long periods of time. Standard medical treatment did nothing to stop chorea, but cannabis tinctures resulted in complete remission after five weeks. In 1845, Corrigan wrote “[Cannabis] possesses a property of considerable value as a sedative, that even in an over dose, it does not cause dryness of the tongue and derangement of the digestive organs, such as follow on the use of opium.” (Russo)
Physician Fleetwood Churchill, in 1849, used cannabis tinctures extensively to treat uterine hemorrhage. His pioneering work in this field resulted in cannabis achieving an eminent place in Ob-Gyn practices of the time.
The first American born medical cannabis physician was Richard Greene. He received his medical training at Edinburgh and practiced in several asylums in England. Greene recognized the value of cannabis medicine to prevent migraines. Greene is quoted as saying Indian hemp has a singularly happy influence in the majority of cases of sick headache. He believed in long-term use of cannabis and noted that its use had no ill effects like those experienced by opium users.
Prohibition stalls medical cannabis
In the in 1920’s, Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, began his racist campaign against marihuana. According to prohbtd.com, Anslinger is quoted as saying, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men. There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are negroes, hispanics, filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with negroes, entertainers and any others.”
By the time the 1930’s rolled around, the march toward prohibition was well organized and funded. Out of nowhere, the movie, Reefer Madness, was written, produced, and distributed across the nation. In addition to the movie, posters declaring marijuana the assassin of youth were distributed, and many newspapers across the country ran stories about people raping, murdering, and going insane once they took even one puff.
Prohibitionists celebrated in August, 1937, when the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was signed into law. While the statute was publicly sold as a means to stop the cultivation and use of smokable marijuana, its real intent was to stop hemp farming in America. As soon as the law went into effect, hemp farming in America came to an abrupt stop. And with the end of hemp farming came the end of cannabis appearing in the U. S. Pharmacopoeia. Cannabis tinctures and flower disappeared from doctor offices and drug stores, and became inaccessible to patients.
Cannabis Makes A Comeback
Some CBD research got underway in the 1940’s, but it wasn’t until the 1960’s that cannabis began to be studied in Europe and Israel in earnest.
Researchers in Israel in the 1960’s determined the chemical structure of CBD, which led to discovering its many medical benefits. Brazilian researchers found that CBD was an effective treatment for epilepsy in the 1970’s. Also in the 1970’s, doctors in England successfully used CBD to reduce nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy.
And, of course, no survey of cannabis medicine is complete without acknowledging that in 2003, CBD was patented as a neuroprotectant by the United States government (U.S. Patent #6,630,507).
All through the 2000’s, CBD began being produced and sold in stores, and in 2014, CBD was legalized in 11 states. Today, CBD is legal in all 50 states, and has even been removed as a Schedule 1 drug with the 2018 Farm bill being signed into law.
Today, CBD is for sale on virtually every corner. CBD stores have proliferated in the retail landscape, especially in places where medical cannabis has yet to be legalized. CBD is not just for humans anymore. Most CBD stores and medical dispensaries carry CBD products for pets as well.
Modern uses of CBD, or cannabis, as it was called in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, include treating brain trauma, migraines, diabetes, arthritis, stress, PTSD, depression, Chron’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and many other conditions. CBD has also proven to be effective in killing cancer cells. Cannabis kills cancer.
Big Pharma Losing Its Grip
A cursory survey of retail trends indicates that many people are giving up their opiate-based pain medications in favor of CBD and THC cannabis remedies. One Oklahoma City pharmacy recently started selling CBD in addition to their prescription medications. One must wonder if they experienced a drop in opiate sales and decided to sell what people are buying.
And buying they are. CBD sales in America reached $367 million in 2017, and is expected to reach $2 billion by 2022.
People have been re-introduced to the difference and desirability of cannabis over synthetic pharmaceuticals for their wellness needs.
Indeed, what is old is new again.
Chandra, S., Lata, H., ElSohly M. (2017) Cannabis sativa L. – Botany and biotechnology, Springer International Publishing, pages 63-78, Chapter 2, History of Cannabis as Medicine: Nineteenth Century Irish Physicians and Correlations of Their Observations to Modern Research, by Ethan B. Russo.
Mechoulam, R. (2015) Cannabis – the Israeli perspective. Journal of Basic and Clinical Physiology and Pharmacology.
Skaper, S. (2012) Endocannabinoids in nervous system health and disease: the big picture in a nutshell. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.