The medical use of cannabis remains a topic of much debate. While laws surrounding its use are slowly relaxing, cannabis is still seen as a controversial medicine with many potential pitfalls.
This view ignores thousands of years of historical evidence highlighting its successful medical use by numerous cultures, including Ancient China, Egypt, India, the Middle East, and more recently Western civilization.
Here’s a closer look at the history of medical cannabis and how we’re rediscovering its benefits today.
Archaeological evidence shows that cannabis has been used for at least 6000 years, making it one of the oldest plants cultivated by human civilization.
The earliest mention of its therapeutic potential comes from the Chinese medicinal text Pen-ts’ao ching, which is believed to have been written by a Chinese emperor in 2700 BC.
The book recommends cannabis for 100 different conditions, including joint pain, gout, and malaria. A later Chinese record from 200 AD also mentions its use as a pain reliever and anesthetic.
There’s also evidence from medical papyri suggesting that cannabis was used in Ancient Egypt as early as 1700 BC for everything from eye problems to infections. It was typically ground, mixed with other herbal ingredients, and applied directly to the problem area.
In addition, records of cannabis’ therapeutic use begin to appear in India around 2000–1000 BC, where it remains an important religious herb today. Here, writings note its use for epilepsy, anxiety, pain, bronchitis, and asthma, among other conditions.
Cannabis also became a common medicine in the Middle East. In particular, it was featured prominently in the writings of 11th-century Persian physician and thinker Avicenna, whose book on medicine served as the leading source of medical knowledge in Medieval Europe up to the 19th century.
Similar to previous historical accounts, Avicenna mentioned the use of cannabis for gout, as well as swelling, infected wounds, and headaches.
Medical cannabis was introduced to Western society by Irish doctor William O’Shaughnessy, who published On the Preparations of Indian Hemp, or Gunjah in 1839 while working in India.
O’Shaughnessy was impressed by the herb’s safety and effectiveness, finding it to be particularly helpful as a pain reliever and sedative. His work led to the rapid spread of medical cannabis use in the West.
By the end of the 19th century, cannabis was a common medication in both Europe and North America, available in over-the-counter tinctures and other preparations.
Records from this period note that cannabis was used for numerous conditions, including asthma, gonorrhea, rheumatism, stomach pain, migraines, inflammation, tetanus, rabies, and women’s health concerns.
Cannabis was even prescribed to Queen Victoria, who ruled the United Kingdom from 1837 to 1901, to ease menstrual discomfort.
As we can see, cannabis has been used therapeutically for millennia. Virtually every single culture that discovered this herb came to appreciate its therapeutic potential. It was even a common over-the-counter medication in Europe and North America just a century ago.
It wasn’t until 1937 that a combination of political reasons and fearmongering led to the ban on cannabis in the United States, with several other countries following suit.
Now, after decades of prohibition, we’re rediscovering the medical benefits of this versatile herb. Cannabis is increasingly being used to treat chronic pain and chemotherapy-induced nausea, and explored as a therapy for cancer, epilepsy, wasting syndrome, and multiple sclerosis. Studies also show great promise in the treatment of PTSD, anxiety and many sleep disorders.
Meanwhile, millions of people across the world are supporting their health with CBD-rich products made from hemp: a non-intoxicating variety of cannabis.
While it’s important to use all of the advantages of modern science to figure out the best way to use cannabis medically, we shouldn’t ignore thousands of years of established knowledge.
As noted by leading medical cannabis expert and researcher Dr. Ethan Russo, “Cannabis historians of the past have provided promising clues to potential treatments for a wide array of currently puzzling medical syndromes…their discoveries and experiments demonstrate important insights that may well retain valid lessons that modern science should utilize…”
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