Medicinal cannabis: Used throughout the ages for medicinal, therapeutic and religious purposes

Medical cannabis has been used for medicinal, therapeutic and religious purposes for centuries in many cultures, including the Chinese, Indians, Assyrians, and Persians. Medical cannabis was used by the ancient Chinese and was first reported in the pen-ts’ao ching, the world’s oldest pharmacopoeia (a book containing directions for the identification of compound medicines), which is based on oral traditions passed down from the time of Emperor Shen-Nung [1]. The book lists medicinal cannabis to be used for the treatment of rheumatic pain, intestinal constipation, disorders of the female reproductive system, malaria, among others.

Hua T’o, the founder of Chinese surgery (BCE 110 – 207), was reported to have performed complicated operations by using an anaesthetic made from cannabis and wine, known as ma-yo [2]. In India, the religious and medicinal use of cannabis began approximately around 1000 BCE [3], while the Assyrians, having known about the psychoactive effects of cannabis, burned it as incense as early as the 9th century BCE [1]. The Persians were familiar with the plant’s two-step effect (biphasic), making a clear distinction between the initial euphoric phase and the later dysphoric phase [1]. Avicenna, a renowned Persian physician of the time, mentions cannabis in his medical compendium, The Canon of Medicine, in 1025 BCE. [4]. The Canon was used as a medical textbook through the eighteenth century in Europe.

The following two videos will provide you with a quick video history of medical cannabis:

The History of Marijuana in Western Medicine ( Sunil Kuman Aggarwal, MD, PhD and Medical Geographer from Americans for Safe Access shares his knowledge about the history of the plant and its uses in ancient China and Egypt, as well as more modern times (the mid 1800s onward) in England and the USA.

A Short History of Medical Cannabis ( An excerpt from the PBS special “Botany of Desire” based on the book by Michael Pollan. The 2 minute clip tracks medical cannabis history over the last 5,000 years. Off-camera commentary by Dr. Andew Weill.

Western Medicine Introduces Cannabis

Cannabis was introduced to Western medicine in the 19th century through the work of William B. O’Shaughnessy, an Irish physician, and Jacques-Joseph Moreau, a French psychiatrist. In his book “On the preparations of the Indian hemp, or gunjah,” O’Shaughnessy describes various successful human experiments using cannabis preparations for rheumatism and convulsions, but predominantly to treat muscular spasms caused by tetanus and rabies [3, 4]. Furthermore, studies by Jacques-Joseph Moreau found that cannabis could suppress headaches, increase appetites, and help people to sleep [6].

Between 1850 and 1940, cannabis was widely used as a painkiller, muscle-spasm suppressant and sedative agent. Various pharmaceutical laboratories marketed cannabis extracts or tinctures [4].

Canada first criminalized cannabis at a national level in 1923, while the United States followed in 1937. Cannabis was dropped from the British Pharmacopoeia in 1932 and the US Pharmacopeia in 1941 [7].

A December 1, 2013 article by Kate Allen, Science and Technology reporter at The Toronto Star entitled Why Canada banned pot: science had nothing to do with it, investigates the history behind why, ultimately, marijuana was banned in Canada.

[1] Touwn M. The religious and medicinal uses of Cannabis in China, India and Tibet. J Psychoactive Drugs. 1981; 13(1):23-34.
[2] Li HL, Lin H. An archaeological and historical account of cannabis in China. Econ Bot. 1974; 28(4):437-47.
[3] Mikuriya TH. Marijuana in medicine: past, present and future. Calif Med. 1969;110(1):34-40.
[4] Fankhauser M. History of cannabis in Western Medicine. In: Grotenhermen F, Russo E, eds. Cannabis and Cannabinoids. New York: The Haworth Integrative Healing Press; 2002. Chapter 4. p. 37-51.
[5] Aldrich M. History of therapeutic cannabis. In: Mathre ML, eds. Cannabis in medical practice. Jefferson, NC: Mc Farland; 1997. p. 35-55.
[6] Moreau JJ. Du Hachisch et de l’Alienation Mentale: Etudes Psychologiques. Paris: Librarie de Fortin Mason; 1845 (English edition: New York, Raven Press; 1972).
[7] Brown DT. The therapeutic potential for cannabis and its derivatives. In: Brown DT, ed. Cannabis: The Genus Cannabis. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1998:175-222.