Cannabis support has grown in leaps and bounds recently as seen in increased public acceptance and legalization. In fact, about 62 percent of Americans are in favor of legalizing the drug according to a Pew Research study.
In the past, the thought of marijuana usually brought to mind spacey and reckless potheads embarking on rollicking good times, but in the last decade, the polarizing plant has finally proven that it is more than a recreational drug. More and more people are recognizing the huge medical potential of cannabis.
Even before the widespread legalization of marijuana, the drug was already recognized in the ancient world for its wide-ranging medicinal uses. Here are five of the major medical marijuana breakthroughs that have happened over the years.
Medical Marijuana in Ancient Civilizations
One of the earliest recorded medical use of cannabis can be traced all the way back to c. 100 AD in ancient China. Shennong Bencaojing, the oldest Chinese book about medicinal plants and agriculture, describes the leaves, flowers, and seeds of cannabis as “officinal.”
Considered one of the fifty “fundamental” herbs in traditional Chinese medicine, cannabis was used to treat a wide range of illnesses including blood clots, vomiting, ulcers, wounds, constipation, tapeworm, and hair loss. The Chinese surgeon Hua Tuo, who lived c. 140–208, is credited to be the first recorded person who used the plant as an anesthetic.
Outside China, cannabis was also mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus of ancient Egypt, where it was used to treat sore eyes and the pain caused by hemorrhoids. In ancient India, marijuana was an important part of religious ceremonies as well as medical procedures for treating headaches, gastrointestinal disorders, and even birthing pains.
The Ancient Greeks also used medical cannabis for treating wounds and sores on their horses. For humans, the plant was used to treat inflammation and pain in the ears.
Introduction to Western Medicine
William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, an Irish physician, is credited with introducing the medical applications of marijuana to Western medicine. He started doing cannabis experiments in the 1930s while he worked as assistant surgeon and professor of chemistry at the Medical College of Calcutta. He first tested it on animals before administering them to patients as a treatment for stomach cramps and muscle spasms and managing general pain.
As a member of the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta, O’Shaughnessy published a number of papers on the different medical uses of marijuana. He also used the plant to treat melancholia, migraines, and rheumatism and applied it as an analgesic, sleeping aid, and anticonvulsant. His work would eventually help popularize marijuana back in England.
Sacred Role in the Rastafari Movement
The Rastafari faith in Jamaica has long been associated with cannabis. Outsiders might think that Rastafari is all about self-indulgence thanks to its links to cannabis, but nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, the members tend to abstain from substances like alcohol, tobacco, and even caffeine, believing these will negatively affect a person’s well-being and dignity.
On the other hand, the religion regards cannabis as a sacred herb that is useful for improving mental health and facilitating spiritual growth. It was a common practice for Rastafari members to commune in groups and share cannabis by passing around joints or pipes. This atmosphere and the calm state induced by the plant would facilitate a constructive and peaceful discussion of life and philosophy according to the Rastafari perspective.
One of the Rastafari religion’s members was reggae icon and music legend Bob Marley, who was a well-known supporter and strong advocate of weed. Unlike many other musicians or artists, Marley did not use marijuana casually or for recreational purposes. Rather, he considered pot as a holy rite and “an aid to medication.” He believed the plant helped him become the gifted artist and poet that he was known to be.
Discovery of the Endocannabinoid System
Although cannabis has been used since ancient times to treat various health conditions, it was not until the twentieth century when scientists finally shed light on how tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) really interacted with the human body. THC is one of the hundreds of naturally occurring active compounds found in marijuana, and it is responsible for its psychoactive effects or the distinctive high that it is known for.
The medical breakthrough began in 1965, when Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli scientist, and his colleagues in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem became the first people to synthesize and learn about the molecular structure of THC.
The identification of THC was an important stepping stone for discovering the endocannabinoid system, which is a part of the body known to affect many important physiological functions, including immune responses, reproduction, metabolism, blood pressure, appetite, and energy. Marijuana’s various effects are a result of the plant’s interaction with this biological system.
The discovery of the endocannabinoid system was not only critical for understanding how cannabis interacted with the body; it was also a seminal advancement in the studies involving human biology.
California as First to Legalize Medical Marijuana
Marijuana experienced severe backlash in the US in the early twentieth century, beginning with the Poison Act of 1907, which lit the fire of decriminalization efforts against the drug. There is no evidence that the law was intentionally used to restrict medical marijuana. In fact, it was a legislative mistake, and over the next decades, various reforms were made, with legislation becoming less strict and a number of states making efforts to decriminalize the drug.
Proposition 19, or the California Marijuana Initiative, sought to make the use, possession, and cultivation of marijuana legal, and although it was not successful, it laid the foundation for other significant reforms in the state.
Finally, in 1996, California made the historic move to legalize medical marijuana, becoming the first state to do so. Other states on the West Coast followed suit, and by 2000, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, Colorado, and Maine had all legalized medical cannabis. As of December 2018, thirty-three states have legalized marijuana, and ten allow its recreational use.