A Brief History of Medical Cannabis

Ruth Lemon
Ruth Lemon - VP of Operations

Oct 10 2020 - 5 min read

Did you know cannabis history stems back 12,000 years? In this article, we’re going to take you through the historic journey of cannabis, from the ancient world right through to how we use the plant today, taking in all of the highs (pun intended) and lows of this fascinating and powerful plant. To get started, we start by giving a shout out to those who came before us and paved the way for people like the team at Leafwell who are researching and developing an understanding of how cannabis can be a pharmacy in a plant.

Notable Names from the History of Medical Cannabis

Here’s a role call of some of the most important scientists and doctors involved in the discovery of medical cannabis and the ECS and how it works (and I’m sure I won’t be capturing all the names here): Prof. Raphael Mechoulam, Prof. Allyn Howlett, Prof. William Anthony Devane, Prof. Lumír Ondřej Hanuš, Prof. Yechiel Gaoni, Prof. Shimon Ben-Shabat, Prof. Roger Pertwee, Prof. Miles Herkenham, Dr. Ernest Small, Dr. Cristina Sanchez, Dr. Manuel Guzmán, Dr. David Meiri, Mara Gordon, Prof. Vincenzo Di Marzo, Dr. Ethan Russo, Dr. Michael Dor, Dr. Lester Grinspoon, and Dr. Staci Gruber.

These are, of course, some of the more modern names. The history of medical cannabis stretched back much further than this, and there are records showing that Chinese, Egyptian, and Indian civilizations used cannabis as medicine as early as 2900 BC.

Cannabis in the Ancient World

Cannabis is thought to come from Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent around 10,000 years ago (10,000 – 8,000 BC). An archaeological site in the Oki Islands near Japan contained cannabis achenes (seeds on the skin), suggesting that cannabis may have been used for its fiber and as a food source. It is also possible that these communities used cannabis for its medical and psychoactive properties.

The Ancient Assyrians knew about the psychoactive properties of cannabis, and introduced it to the Scythians, Thracians and Dacians. Cannabis residue has also been found on two altars in Tel Arad. This suggests that cannabis was used ritualistically in the Kingdom of Judah. Cannabis, therefore, may have been a part of religious and ritualistic use for thousands of years.

Cannabis was commonly believed by ancient civilizations to help with glaucoma, chronic pain and inflammation. Modern medicine confirms that they were correct in believing this. History also offers evidence that it was common practice by the Ancient Greeks and Romans to use cannabis medically.

Cannabis during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment

The Renaissance was a time of scientific, cultural and political development in Europe. Perhaps it comes as no surprise to learn that the potential to use cannabis as medicine began to enter the scientific community.

In the UK, Clergyman Robert Burton suggested that cannabis can be used to treat depression in 1621. The herbalist Nicholas Culpeper also wrote about the medical uses of hemp in 1652. These are two of the earliest written examples of medical cannabis we have in Early Modern Europe.

Cannabis during the Industrial Revolution

As the scientific and medical industries developed, so too did other areas of society with industrialisation transforming countries from rural-based economies as urban centres sprang up, offering work opportunities and, inevitably, illnesses.

In the 1800s, there was Prof. Roger Adams, Dr. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, Dr. Jacques-Joseph Moreau, and Dr. E. A. Birch, who looked at cannabis for the treatment of various conditions like headaches, opiate withdrawal, insomnia, lack of appetite, convulsions, menstrual cramps, muscle spasms, seizures and nausea. These scientists are some of the first to look at cannabis medically, and took a serious look at the chemical components of cannabis. They were the forerunners to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS).

One of these scientists, Prof. Roger Adams, also made some key steps forwards in our understanding of cannabis. He isolated and identified cannabidiol (CBD) from Cannabis sativa and showed its relationship to cannabinol and tetrahydrocannabinol. Prof. Adams synthesized CBD and THC analogs as well.

Cannabis in the Modern Era

Many lists of medications (called pharmacopeias) listed cannabis as a medicine by cultures across the world, including the US. However, society seemed to change its mind about cannabis as a medicine and instead classified it as a drug, transforming it from a legal substance to an illegal one.

It was in 1942 that cannabis was dropped from the United States Pharmacopeia, with penalties for possession increasing in 1951 in the US. On a worldwide scale, cannabis was banned in 1928 by the League of Nations, mostly for reasons associated with colonialism or protecting other industries rather than science. But that’s a topic for another time!

It is important to remember the role many breeders and growers have played in the understanding of the cannabis plant and its therapeutic potential, many of whom are leading botanists, horticulturists and other types of scientists in their own right. One such example is Nevil Schoenmakers, founder of the very first seed bank ever, simply called “The Seedbank”.

Other important breeders include Ben Dronkers, Dave Watson (Sam the Skunkman), Shantibaba, Lawrence Ringo, TGA Subcool, Jaime of Resin Seeds, DJ Short, Don Morris, Aaron Yarkoni, Simon of Serious Seeds, Soma, and again several others who we haven’t named. (The list would get too long, otherwise!)

Seedbanking became popular in the 1970s, when scientists became concerned over the loss of plant genetic diversity due to the expansion of a few agricultural crops around mid-century. Cannabis enthusiasts thought similarly, and not only created many strains by crossbreeding, but also retaining cannabis plants with unique effects and terpene profiles. This undoubtedly kept genetics in the cannabis genepool that ensured the survival of cannabinoids, and that they were not all wiped out by the search for more-and-more THC.

We are now seeing the importance of this work, as monocultures are suspect to disease. Our collective gut microbiomes may also be negatively impacted by monocultures, as our diets lack variety in grains, fruits and vegetables. Having a healthy gut contributes to a strong immune system, heart health, brain health, improved mood, healthy sleep, and effective digestion, and it may help prevent some cancers and autoimmune diseases.

Medical Cannabis Today

Medical marijuana programs began to be implemented across the US, beginning with California, of course, in 1996. Since then, 33 more states and DC have implemented programs to provide access to medical marijuana for patients who have either a qualifying condition (differing in each state – see our state pages for the conditions eligible in your state!) or in some states for patients whom the doctor directly recommends medical marijuana.

Along with this development, many states have legalized recreational cannabis and decriminalized possession too – both signs that society is moving in the right direction.

In 2020, it feels like there is new legislation being passed monthly to expand access to both medical and recreational cannabis in the US. Indeed, around the world, medical marijuana is becoming more accepted as Australia and the UK begin programs. For many of us in the industry, this feels inevitable as the understanding of the value of this pharmacy in a plant expands but it’s still exciting to watch as more medical marijuana patients unlock the potential of cannabis for their health.

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Written by
Ruth Lemon
Ruth Lemon

Ruth Lemon has worked in Cambodia and Australia, gaining experience in the non-profit sector, education and international development, and digital marketing. Ruth is helping Leafwell to scale without compromising the customer experience and seeks to create a frictionless customer journey. She now lives in the UK with her rescued Cambodian cat and believes Leafwell is improving access to and understanding of a valuable medical alternative.

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