DEC 04, 2017 2:33 PM PST

A Brief History of Medical Cannabis

WRITTEN BY: Loren DeVito

Ancient Medicinal Use

It has been reported that cannabis was first used for medicinal purposes in China around 2737 BCE as a remedy for gout, rheumatism, and malaria. Its use has also been documented in India, Egypt, and the Middle East around the same time period. Egyptians used cannabis to treat a number of ailments, including glaucoma and inflammation, and cannabis was used as an anesthetic in India. Medical cannabis also made its way to ancient Greece, where it was considered a remedy for earache and edema.

In the 19th century, Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, considered the founder of medicinal marijuana, brought cannabis to the Western world following his studies in India. O’Shaughnessy used the herb to treat epilepsy, tetanus, and rabies, among other conditions. In fact, it is believed that Queen Victoria actually used cannabis tinctures to treat her menstrual cramps. By 1840, use of medical cannabis became widespread in Europe, and it is documented that French psychiatrist Jacques-Joseph Moreau prescribed the plant for his patients to treat headaches, appetite suppression, and insomnia.

The plant eventually made its way to North America through European settlers, and, in the US, hemp was cultivated for both medicinal and recreational purposes. However, in the 1900s, the US government began placing the plant's use under restriction, which slowly but surely led to its complete prohibition.

Milestones in Cannabis Science Research

In 1964, two scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel forever changed the face of cannabis science. Raphael Mechoulam and Y. Gaoni identified and synthesized Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the commonly known psychoactive component of the cannabis plant, opening the door toward a greater understanding of how cannabis works in the body.

Fifteen years later, researchers at the St. Louis University School of Medicine identified cannabinoid receptors in the brain. The next breakthrough in research came in 1990, when scientists at the National Institute of Mental Health discovered the genetic underpinnings of the THC receptor.

Work by Mechoulam in the mid-90s also led to the identification of the endogenous cannabinoids anandamide and 2AG. And since then, we've learned so much more about how the endocannabinoid system works and how different compounds in the plant can address certain symptoms and diseases.

Where We Stand Today

In 1970, with the passage of the Controlled Substances Act, all forms of cannabis became illegal in the US and cannabis was added to the list of Schedule I substances. We’ve come a long way since then in trying to undo some of these regulations and the restrictions they've placed on medicine and research but, for now, these legislative changes must be made on a state-by-state basis.

There is so much promise for the use of medical cannabis to treat a variety of different conditions. However, due to its status in the US, clinical trials, which require tremendous resources, are not quite getting the full support they need to help us realize the full potential of medical cannabis. Despite these challenges, science is pulling ahead and will undoubtedly continue to lead the medical community toward greater use of cannabis.

Learn more about the history of cannabis in the video below:


About the Author
  • Academically trained neuroscientist with extensive experience in science and medical writing across a wide range of therapeutic areas.
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