Medical marijuana isn’t a 21st-century invention.
California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, but the history of cannabis used medicinally starts long before that—about 5,000 years before that, to be exact.
There’s evidence that a number of ancient civilizations used cannabis to treat ailments. Back in 2800 BCE, the Chinese emperor Shen-Nung praised cannabis highly (no pun intended), dubbing it one of the “Superior Elixirs of Immortality.”
Shen-Nung prescribed cannabis as a successful treatment for things like malaria, constipation, rheumatism, and menstrual pain and complications, according to cannabis historian Chris Bennett.
Later, in 200 CE, the famous Chinese surgeon Hua T’o used the resin of cannabis as an anesthetic for complicated—yet painless—surgeries. (Find out Hao T’o’s contributions to early migraine treatment here.)
Over in ancient Mesopotamia, doctors found out that cannabis could help treat “Hand of Ghost,” which is now believed to be epilepsy. (During this time period, many ailments were blamed on ghosts.) Mesopotamians also applied cannabis topically to treat swelling or pain.
Nearby, ancient Egyptians believed cannabis was the creation of Ra, the sun god. They used cannabis topically to treat vaginal inflammation and ingrown toenails, according to Bennett.
Cannabis Goes Into the Modern Era
The therapeutic properties of cannabis were well known to a number of cultures, but as modern medicine evolved, it was time to put cannabis to the test. One of the earliest studies on cannabis was done by the Irish physician W. B. O’Shaughnessy in the 1840s, who found cannabis had incredible anti-seizure effects in a newborn baby with recurring seizures.
Not long after that, “extractum cannabis,” or the “alcohol extract of the dried tops of Cannabis sativa,” appeared as a remedy in the 1850 edition of United States Pharmacopoeia, an annually published guide to medicine. Around this time, cannabis was openly sold in pharmacies and was an acceptable treatment for a number of ailments.
From Remedy to Felony: The Legal History of Cannabis
As the United States entered the 20th century, an opioid crisis had begun. Opium had been used abundantly during the Civil War to treat war wounds, resulting in many soldiers returning home with opioid addictions. When this was discovered, opioids and morphine were taken off the shelves as over-the-counter drugs and were limited to prescriptions only.
Still, the early 1900s became a heavy time of drug use as so many people were addicted to narcotics, including young people. Worse, opioids became associated with Chinese immigrants, who operated “opium dens” for city folk, particularly lower-class men (both white and Chinese). Unfortunately, discrimination against the large influx of immigrants was strong at the time, and this connection fueled the fire.
What does this have to do with cannabis? As the fear of narcotics and immigrants set in, cannabis got lumped in. Anti-drug activists used racism to spread the fear of cannabis (which is *not* a narcotic) by associating the drug with the growing population of Mexican immigrants. They also pushed the term marijuana to give it a distinctly Spanish sound. Newspapers slowly switched to using marijuana instead of cannabis.
The movement for cannabis prohibition was successful: Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. This essentially criminalized cannabis for both medical and recreational uses. By 1942, cannabis was stripped from the United States Pharmacopoeia, and research on the drug’s use was limited.
Medical Marijuana: What We Know Now
Between 1937 and now, marijuana has been the target of a number of state and federal legislations. It has seen its ups and downs, but starting in 1996, the trend has been mostly up.
In 1996, California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana as part of Proposition 215. This ignited a tension between state and federal law, which has continued today as more and more states have followed suit. In fact, some states have even legalized (and decriminalized) recreational marijuana. (Learn the difference between all these cannabis terms here.)
Why the change of heart? Well, there’s a number of factors, but one major influence continues to be the medicinal benefits of cannabis—something the ancient civilizations keyed in on several millennia ago. Current research suggests medical marijuana can help reduce nausea, inflammation, and pain, and it may improve appetite and muscle control.
Although it may still take a while for medical marijuana to fully outgrow its 20th-century stigma, one thing is for sure: Cannabis is a promising plant that may offer relief to thousands of Americans dealing with chronic ailments.
Bennett C. Early/ancient history. In: Holland J, ed. The pot book: a complete guide to cannabis. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2010.
Bridgeman MB, Abazia DT. MEdicinal cannabis: history, pharmacology, and implications for the acute care setting. P T. 2017 Mar;42(3):180-8.
National Medical Convention. The pharmacopoeia of the United States of America, 1850. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, Grambo, & Co, 1851.
Perucca E. Cannabinoids in the treatment of epilepsy: hard evidence at last? J Epilepsy Res. 2017 Dec;7(2):61-76.
Survey of marijuana law in the United States: history of marijuana regulation in the United States. Athens, GA: Alexander Campbell King Law Library, University of Georgia. (Accessed on March 26, 2019 at https://libguides.law.uga.edu/c.php?g=522835&p=3575350.)