History of Medical Cannabis

The current popularity of CBD oil can make it seem like CBD’s use is very much limited to the past 10 years. However, hemp was present in the lives of our ancestors for thousands of years as a source of fibre, a nutritious ingredient in traditional recipes, and in many folk medicines.

Of course it’s true if you’d talked to a doctor at the time, they wouldn’t have spoken about cannabinoids, receptors or the endocannabinoid system. They would have just known that adding hemp, be it the flowers, seeds or leaves, had an overall health-giving effect on their patients.

Unfortunately, over the last 70 years, hemp and cannabis (which are the same plant anyway) have been systematically removed from the official pharmacopoeia, culminating in the US 1970 Controlled Substance Act’s classification of cannabis as a schedule 1 drug which declared cannabis and hemp as having no medical benefit and liable for abuse.

Consequently, there are very few people alive who still remember a time when cannabis and hemp were just medicines in a doctor’s toolkit like any other. Instead, thanks to years of global propaganda, cannabis has been demonised as little more than a gateway drug.

Thankfully, times are changing, and even the UK has recognised cannabis as having therapeutic benefit, reclassifying it as a schedule 2 drug.

And of course, CBD (cannabidiol) is one of the most popular nutritional supplements on the market, selling more than vitamin C and D together. But even CBD’s use finds itself in doubt, with the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) recently including cannabinoids in the novel food catalogue, despite being part of our diet as hemp for hundreds if not thousands of years.

A food is classed as novel if it wasn’t regularly consumed before 1997. When a food enters the novel food catalogue, it can no longer be sold until expensive licenses are acquired proving that it is safe and non-toxic to be eaten. Thankfully though, the UK Food Standards Agency has yet to announce whether it plans to implement the EU directive.

Medical Cannabis Through the Ages

When considering the medical use of cannabis throughout the years, it makes little sense to categorize the plant in the modern sense – i.e. whether it contains CBD or THC.

In all likelihood, if cannabis was consumed in Northern Europe, it would have been akin to what we know these days as industrial hemp, whereas cannabis used in medicine in India, the Middle East, Africa and Asia, would have had a psychoactive effect.

So, let’s take a whistle stop tour of medical cannabis history.

2900 BC – Chinese Emperor Fu Hsi references cannabis possessing both “yin and yang” in medicine

2700 BC – Another Chinese Emperor, Shen Nung, considered the father of Chinese medicine, is said to have discovered the medicinal qualities of cannabis

1500 BC – Keeping the Chinese theme, the earliest written reference to medical cannabis is found in the Chinese Pharmacopeia

1450 BC – Book of Exodus mentions ‘kaneh-bosem’, identified by respected etymologists, linguists, anthropologists, and botanists as cannabis

1213 BC – Egyptians recorded as using cannabis for glaucoma, inflammation and enemas

700 BC – Use of cannabis is recorded in the Middle East in the Persian holy book, the Vendidad

600 BC – Indian Ayurvedic Treatise cites cannabis as a treatment for leprosy

200 BC – Cannabis used in Ancient Greece to treat earache, edema and inflammation

1 AD – Back in China an ancient text recommends cannabis for more than 100 ailments including gout, rheumatism, malaria, and absentmindedness

70 AD – Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides in the Roman medical text, De Materia Medica, says cannabis treats earaches and suppresses sexual longing

200 – Chinese Surgeon Hua T’o uses cannabis resin and wine as an anesthetic

1538 – English botanist, William Turner, praises cannabis in his ‘New Herball’

1631 – Cannabis recommended as a treatment for depression by English Clergyman and Oxford scholar Robert Burton in his influential 1621 book ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’

1652 – British Herbalist includes hemp in his book ‘The English Physician’ stating it ‘allayeth Inflammations in the Head … eases the pains of the Gout … Knots in the Joynts, [and] the pains of the Sinews and Hips’

1842 – William Shaughnessy brings medical cannabis to the UK after learning about its uses during his time living in India.

1840s – Medical cannabis is widely studied and used in the West, with French psychiatrist, Jacques-Joseph Moreau finding the plant suppresses headaches, increases appetite and aids sleep

1850 – Cannabis added to US Pharmacopeia both for prescription and over the counter medicines to treat neuralgia, tetanus, typhus, cholera, rabies, dysentery, alcoholism, opiate addiction, anthrax, leprosy, incontinence, gout, convulsive disorders, tonsillitis, insanity, excessive menstrual bleeding, and uterine bleeding

Early 1900s – Doctors regularly prescribe cannabis based medicines

1925 – League of Nations Sign Multilateral Treaty restricting cannabis to scientific and medical use only. This convention is the first multilateral treaty that deals with cannabis.

1928 – Cannabis added to UK Dangerous Drugs Act

1942 – Marijuana Removed from US Pharmacopeia

1961 – UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs Act establishes the following rule in Article 49: “The use of cannabis for other than medical and scientific purposes must be discontinued as soon as possible.”

1971 – Cannabis and hemp is classified as a Class B controlled Drug in the 1971 UK Misuse of Drugs Act

1996 – California becomes the first US state to legalise medical cannabis

2011-12 – Sativex a 1:1 THC:CBD cannabis extract is approved for the treatment of spasticity in MS in certain EU countries

2018 – Cannabis is placed in Schedule 2 of the UK Misuse of Drugs Regulations, and legalised for medical use in the UK

2019 – Epidiolex, a pure CBD pharmaceutical drug is approved as an anti-seizure medication for two rare types of epilepsy

November 2019 – National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) makes cautious recommendations for the prescription of cannabis based medicines including sativex for MS, epidiolex for Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut Syndromes.

The Future

It’s clear the story of cannabis/hemp and its use in modern medicine has yet to run its full course. Whether sufficient clinical trials take place to provide the proof regulators need in order to approve its use for patients remains to be seen.

In the meantime, using CBD oil as a nutritional supplement continues to be the number 1 choice for health conscious consumers across the globe.


By Mary Biles

Mary Biles is an ex-TV producer, writer and educator with a background in holistic health. In the past, she’s written for the Huffington Post, CNN, and the BBC. While living in Southern Spain, her path crossed with the medicinal properties of the cannabis plant, and for the last three years she’s been writing about cannabinoids, in particular CBD, European medical cannabis research, and the endocannabinoid system. Now based in the UK, Mary is passionate about putting medical cannabis science into digestible terms; where possible going straight to source and interviewing the scientists behind the breakthroughs. Her website is HERE.

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