We’re covering what many would consider a surprising history of medical cannabis in this article, which is likely to contain several follow up articles to fully round out how hemp, marijuana and other varieties of cannabis play a part in world history as this versatile plant spread naturally across the globe over millennia.
Cannabis is a unique plant with long standing roots in world history for its ability to assist with a multitude of ailments and conditions alongside being a resource for everyday uses. Cannabis is simply put, an easily found, adaptable, sun-loving variety of weed that grows in many different climates.
Cannabis’ origins can be traced back to the Altai Mountain range that exists in Central and East Asia where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together. From this harsh high altitude climate, cannabis spread across the globe, heading northward into Europe and China, where it was used as a fiber and medicine.
Cannabis then travelled through India, Africa and the Middle East where it was found to have great healing and psychoactive properties. Wherever cannabis planted its roots, it found a way to adapt and thrive, much-like its remarkable array of medicinal, dietary and practical use by people in a wide variety of cultures.
A common characteristic of plants that have had a long-standing relationship with humans is in their diverse range of uses. Some of our oldest cultivated plants have many purposes from food to fiber to medicine. Across Eurasia, cannabis is self-sown, this is especially evident across river valleys where early humans settled and began changing native environments.
Cannabis is known as a “camp-follower” in that it adapts rapidly to newly changed environments and was often found colonizing the first nitrogen-rich compost heaps of the community. Many uses were found for cannabis, so it wasn’t long before humans began cultivating the plant.
Cannabis went by a large variety of names through the ages, commonly used in ancient Greek medicine. The most popular scientific name of cannabis was traced back to Greece with Dioscorides referring to it in the first century AD as kannabion (which translates to “dear cannabis” or “little cannabis” likely from the root “cane” or “kanna”).
There are several theories about the etymology of the word, pointing to the first and earliest known civilization of man, the Sumerians. Others point to Sanskrit origins. There are scholars that claim cannabis is referred to in the Bible as an “aromatic cane or reed” or in some scriptures, as part of a “holy oil” that was blended with several herbs and was strictly used to anoint new members of what was called the Aaronic priesthood.
Over millennia, humans have bred and selected varieties of cannabis for different purposes such as what was once considered the non-medical product, hemp, which was widely used for its fiber production.
When US colonies were first getting established, colonial farmers were ordered to grow hemp for use in sails, ropes and use in trade ships. Hemp was a common source of clothing and paper; in fact, the Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper. Hemp was essentially a major backbone in the uprising of America and its founding fathers. Even Thomas Jefferson and George Washington touted its superiority as a crop, both farming hemp on their land.
Even though western explorers and ethnobotanists would sparsely mention cannabis during their travels, Western physicians knew very little about the plant for a very long time, not until the mid-nineteenth century was it discovered to have medicinal properties.
Irish doctor, William Brooke O'Shaughnessy, (1809-1889) was credited with re-introducing cannabis to the new modern world after reading a groundbreaking paper to a hall of scholars and students at the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta in 1839. He contributed greatly by pioneering the work on cannabis therapy, along with inventing the current-day treatment for cholera, he also contributed significantly to a number of fields, including underwater engineering.
O’Shaughnessy, was the first to conducted several clinical trials of cannabis at the prominent university in colonial India by starting on mice, dogs, rabbits and cats, and when he was happy with the safety and efficacy, moved onto human trials after making handmade extracts that were largely based on “native” formulas, which he then administered to his patients.
The 1839 paper that was presented, showed case studies of patients suffering from hydrophobia, cholera, rheumatism, and tetanus, as well as one case of an infant suffering from seizures who responded remarkably well to the tinctures, reportedly going from what was considered near death to “the enjoyment of robust health” in just a few days.
O’Shaughnessy cautioned other doctors to start slow and low, keeping the doses low and working up, after warning about a form of delirium “occasioned by continual Hemp inebriation.” His words after conducting these clinical studies was that this had “led to the belief that in Hemp the professional has gained an anti-convulsive remedy of the greatest value.”
In just the short time frame of 61 years between 1839 and 1900, more than one hundred research papers appeared in scientific and medical journals outlining the incredible medicinal properties of cannabinoids from the cannabis plant.
Cannabis became regularly used as both a common household medicine and intoxicant across America and Europe from the 1850s to 1930s where cannabis tinctures and hemp extracts were often-used with a stellar reputation for pain relief among other uses and sold by pharmaceutical companies in Europe and the United States during this period.
If you enjoyed this article in a history of medical cannabis you’ll likely enjoy other articles over on our blog covering the latest research on all things cannabis, hemp and the endocannabinoid system as it relates to a variety of bodily conditions.
To read part two of this article click here.
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