Cannabis has been interwoven into the historical development of many cultures and societies and has medical, spiritual and agricultural relevance spanning continents and millennia.
As with many scientific disciplines, much can be learned from our collective global history. Understanding the historical use of cannabis in both cultural and medical applications is essential to the successful integration of cannabis in modern medicine.
The use of cannabis as a medicine is thought to have originated in central Asia or western China, with the first documented case of its use dating back to 2700 BC, when it was listed in the world’s oldest pharmacopoeia and was recognised as one of the fifty ‘fundamental’ herbs and recommended the use of every part of the plant for 120 different conditions.
The historical literature also notes the mind-altering effects of cannabis, stating that “ma-fen (fruit of cannabis), if taken over the long-term, makes one communicate with spirits and lightens one’s body”.
Cannabis was also reportedly used to anesthetise patients before surgery. Physician and founder of Chinese surgery, Hua T’o, described cannabis as an analgesic. He is reported to have used a combination of cannabis and wine to sedate and anesthetise his patients before surgery.
As cannabis use increased in China, it quickly spread westward, reaching India by 1000 BCE. Cannabis was used extensively, both recreationally and medicinally, and integrated into religious and spiritual practices.
The therapeutic indications of cannabis are mentioned in the texts of Indian Hindus in 1000 BC. In particular, Atharva Veda, one of the Vedic scriptures of Hinduism, says cannabis is one of the five sacred plants of Hinduism and is described as a “source of happiness,” a “joy-giver,” and a “bringer of freedom.”
Hindu legend says that Shiva, one of the principal deities of Hinduism, was given the title ‘The Lord of Bhang’ because the cannabis plant was his favourite food.
The widespread use of cannabis in religious ceremonies in India led to discovering the plant’s medicinal benefits. Cannabis became commonly used as an analgesic, anticonvulsant, anesthetic, antibiotic, and anti-inflammatory.
By 450 BCE, cannabis had reached the Mediterranean, as evidenced by Herodotus, who wrote of a Scythian funeral ceremony, where cannabis seeds were burned for their euphoric effects.
Then in 1000 AD, Persian physician Avicenna, one of the most influential medical writers of the period, published a summary of his medical knowledge titled ‘Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine. His medical literature was widely studied in western medicine from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century, with lasting impact.
Avicenna recorded cannabis as an effective treatment for gout, edema, infectious wounds and severe headaches.
Between 900 – 1464 AD, Arabic medicine noted that cannabis was regarded as an effective treatment for epilepsy.
In the 1300s, Arab traders brought cannabis from India to Africa, where it was used to treat malaria, fever, asthma and dysentery.
The 1500s saw cannabis reach South America via the slave trade, which transported Africans along with seeds, from Angola to Brazil. In Brazil, cannabis was used extensively in the African community, including in religious rituals such as the ‘Catimbó,’ which used cannabis for magical and medical purposes.
From Brazil, cannabis made its way North to Mexico, where it was primarily used for recreational purposes.
It wasn’t until 1839 that cannabis’ therapeutic benefits were first introduced and studied in Western Medicine. Irish physician William O’Shaughnessy published his research called ‘On the preparations of Indian hemp, or gunjah’.
O’Shaughnessy first encountered cannabis while working as a physician in India with the British East India Company. During this time, he witnessed the miraculous healing properties of the plant; with growing curiosity and interest, he started studying the existing scientific literature on cannabis and consulted with elders and healers to understand the recreational and medicinal uses of cannabis.
Impressed with his findings, O’Shaughnessy proceeded to test the effects of cannabis on animals to evaluate whether it produced any toxic side effects. Confident that it was safe, he provided extracts of cannabis to his patients, at which time he discovered the plant’s analgesic and sedative properties.
Soon after, he began prescribing cannabis and was rewarded with positive patient results. His most tremendous success came when he used cannabis to calm muscle spasms caused by rabies and tetanus.
O’Shaughnessy’s initial results, followed by those of other western medicine physicians, led cannabis to spread rapidly through Europe and North America.
Although, not all western medicine doctors were fans of cannabis. In 1903, an English physician and director of the Cairo Hospital for the Insane, wrote “The Cannabinomaniac is a good-for-nothing, lazy fellow, who lives by begging & stealing, and pesters his relations for money to buy hasheesh, often assaulting them when they refuse his demands. The moral degradation of these cases is their most salient symptom; loss of social position, shamelessness, addiction to lying & theft, and a loose irregular life, make them a curse to their families.”
It’s easy to see how when someone of supposed importance and notable authority makes a sweeping statement such as this, that the opinion of the masses changes to fall in line.
The trajectory of cannabis in western medicine followed a sharp rise during the 1800s and early 1900s when it was readily found in over the counter pharmaceuticals such as cough medicines and prescribed by doctors for various illnesses. However, its popularity and usage quickly declined with the introduction of vaccines for diseases such as tetanus, which made cannabis’ previous role in treating these diseases obsolete.
Furthermore, the development of synthetic analgesics such as chloral hydrate, antipyrine and aspirin filled some of the demand for analgesic painkillers.
Ultimately, the development of the hypodermic needle and its application to opiates could be considered the most significant factor in declining cannabis use.