Humans have relied on the medicinal properties of cannabis for a very long time. Archaeological evidence tells us that as far back as
4,000 BC, farmers living in what is now China relied on cannabis as a staple grain.
Over the subsequent 6,000 years, cannabis has gone through many evolutions. From foodstuff to spiritual smudge to medicinal fix-it-all, to prohibition and back again. It's been a tumultuous few millennia to say the very least.
Yet, it is only within the last century where our relationship with the plant became more complicated as it moved into modern medicine and then quickly spiraled into prohibition. Cannabis' triumphant return to medicine over the last few decades has been hard-fought, but well worth it.
To detail the complete history of medical cannabis would take ages. For the TLDR (too long didn’t read) community, this is the abbreviated Cole's Note version. If you have ever had a question about the origins of cannabis as medicine - this will serve as the perfect educational review.
The Earliest Evidence of Medical Cannabis Use
From what we know about cannabis's role in ancient cultures, it's placed in medicine seems to have begun in China around the year 2737 BC. According to an ancient herbal history called the Shen-Nung Pen-Tsao Ching, or The Classic of Herbal Medicine, cannabis was valued for the treatment of over 100 different medical conditions. From this book and subsequent texts, we know these ancient cultures used the plant for leprosy, hemorrhaging, gout, and rheumatism, among dozens of other applications.
In India, cannabis was one of the five sacred plants according to Ayurveda traditions. As far back as 1400 BC, we know the region relied on cannabis as a medicinal herb and as a sacred plant. Again, just like in ancient China, it seems to have been used for the treatment of many ailments, including congestion, insomnia, fever, digestive aid, and as an appetite stimulant.
Over the years the plant spread west across Asia, through the Middle East (with records of use from 700 BC), and eventually into Europe. In Medieval times, Europe was entirely reliant on cannabis for the fabrication of canvas, but there is little evidence of extensive medicinal applications until much later. During these years, the various kingdoms and serfdoms grew hemp (cannabis) for fiber alone.
It was not until the 19th century when news of the plant's medicinal applications finally came to the region thanks to exploratory missions by European physicians. These doctors and explorers brought back applications of cannabis discovered in Egypt and India that were entirely novel to Europeans at the time.
Once Europeans got a sense of just how valuable the properties of this plant were, it spread like wildfire. It was widely used in both Europe and North America in tincture format to treat a range of conditions like epilepsy, depression, pain during childbirth, and as an opioid replacement.
Many of these may sound shockingly familiar to what we use the plant for today. (Funny enough, physicians and medical researchers struggled to find a standardized dose even in these golden years).
The Era of Prohibition and the War on Drugs
As the plant gained popularity for its medicinal applications in North America, it was also earning itself a bit of notoriety for its recreational uses. If you know anything about American history during the early 1900s, you'll know the Southern US was a place of deep-rooted racism in this period.
For many reasons we won't get into here, race relations became especially strained during this period. In the South, they became particularly heightened as migrant workers came from Mexico to alleviate a local labor shortage.
Although there wasn't much substance to the rumors, cannabis use quickly became associated with Mexican workers. Due to the escalating tensions in the region, America's white politicians soon began regulating cannabis, as a way to control migrant workers. As Time Magazine so eloquently put it, "it had to do with not only what was being smoked, but especially who was smoking it."
Thanks in part to the rising opposition to minorities, especially Latinos and African Americans, the Marijuana Tax went into place in 1937. This legislation was pushed through despite massive opposition from the American Medical Association.
In their final statement, they said, "There is positively no evidence to indicate the abuse of cannabis as a medicinal agent or to show that its medicinal use is leading to the development of cannabis addiction." Still, "the marihuana menace" mentality took hold in society. It became a means for the government to persecute minorities without explicitly saying so.
We all know how this situation unraveled over the next century. Cannabis quickly went from revered medicinal compound to a reviled Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Over the subsequent decade, policymakers cracked down on any use of the plant, putting it on par with heroin, Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) and LSD under the controlled substances act. Unfortunately, many of these laws seemed to target minorities.
The fear-mongering about cannabis spread into just about every corner of society, and well beyond the borders of the US. Reefer Madness, the infamous anti-cannabis film which came out in 1936 was only the beginning of the fall of cannabis over the following decades.
Slow Start for Medical Cannabis Research
Although the majority of states in the US now have a medicinal cannabis program, federal prohibition still exists. This lingering anti-cannabis legislation has had severe repercussions for cannabis research worldwide.
Over the last 50 years, it was nearly impossible for researchers anywhere to perform robust clinical study because of the restrictions. Any research, if approved and funded, tended to focus on cannabis and addiction, cannabis and crime, and other negative associations. To this day, research is decades behind most other traditional medicinal compounds.
Thankfully, the times, they are a-changing'. In Canada, Israel, and other European countries cannabis research is happening at a full clip. It seems as if every single day, a new and exciting application for the plant is proposed by researchers.
More research is moving out of the early stages of study and onwards into clinical trials. With cannabis now considered a medicinal compound by federal governments, global organizations, and medical research centers - we are living in the golden age of cannabis.