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The Colorful History of Cannabis as Medicine

The Colorful History of Cannabis as Medicine

You could be forgiven for believing medical cannabis is a recent phenomenon. After all, it was only in 2013 that CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, admitted that cannabis had medicinal use. But despite the fact that many of the medical advancements cannabis has contributed to seem like modern marvels – e.g., shrinking tumors in vitro and making life bearable for children with seizures – cannabis as medicine actually dates back thousands of years.


In fact, your great-great-grandmother probably used weed. In the mid-1800s, it was commonplace for pharmacies to carry cannabis tinctures, and doctors prescribed the plant in various forms for a plethora of maladies from insomnia to venereal disease. And even then, it was far from novel.


Records show that cannabis has been used medicinally dating back at least 5,000 years. Throughout Asia, where it was first cultivated some 10,000 years ago, cannabis has been used to treat everything from malaria and constipation to “absent-mindedness” and PMS. In ancient China, a combination of cannabis, resin, and wine was used as an analgesic for surgeries, and in India, pot has been used to stimulate appetite, improve digestion and cure venereal disease. 


But knowledge of the medicinal benefits of cannabis spread quickly from Asia to the rest of the world. To this day, there are tribes in Africa that extol the benefits of lighting up before childbirth. And in the 1600s, cannabis was being used topically to treat inflammation in Eastern Europe and depression in England.


By the mid-1800s, doctors in Europe and the United States were prescribing cannabis for the gamut of physical ailments, widely available at pharmacies in tinctures and in hash form. Even Queen Victoria herself had a prescription for pot. 


cannabis, like any herbal medicine, has a long history


Unlike many states that allow for medical use of cannabis only for those with terminal illness, just two centuries ago, cannabis was prescribed for overall physical and emotional wellness. From asthma, enhanced sleep, postpartum psychosis and easing the mind of those near death, cannabis was a common cure-all whose effectiveness was not debatable, even as it was often seen as unpredictable. 


Just as today’s strains offer differing levels of potency, cannabis back then likewise impacted people differently based on a variety of factors. This, coupled with increased opioid use due to the advent of the hypodermic needle in the 1850s, led to the decline of cannabis as medicine by 1890. And by 1937, with the Marihuana Tax Act, simply prescribing the plant became an onerous endeavor requiring extensive paperwork and record-keeping that made the entire prospect prohibitive for doctors.


The benefits of medical cannabis became lost to history for generations in the United States, until California, led by Dennis Peron and a group of fierce ganja warriors, became the first state in the nation to re-legalize the plant for medicinal use in 1996. Today, 95 percent of the country lives in a state that has some form of legal cannabis.
Now that’s the kind of history we love to see repeat itself. 

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