It’s estimated that the medicinal use of Cannabis dates back to at least 2900 BCE, when it was used by Chinese emperors who reportedly credited it with bringing “balance and healing to body, mind and spirit.” There’s also evidence that it was used by the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Hindus … but it wasn’t until the end of the Middle Ages that the idea of Cannabis as medicine really began to take root in Western culture.
THE BIRTH OF BOTANY
Europe’s Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries instigated a steep rise in both botany and book publishing. As a result, a number of English herbalists began publishing a wave of treatises on plants and their medicinal properties. Among the first of these was a clergyman and Oxford scholar named Robert Burton. For most of his life, Burton suffered from “melancholy” – an epidemic of the day that likely encompassed clinical depressions and several other modern mental illnesses. In an effort to ease the anguish of both himself and others, he spent over 20 years studying and writing about the topic. The result was a sprawling, pseudo-scientific magnum opus entitled “The Anatomy of Melancholy.” First published in 1621, the textbook is separated into three partitions, the second of which deals with proposed treatments. In it, Burton lists “hemp-seed” among the many herbs and spices purported to alleviate the malady.
Next, in 1640, botanist John Parkinson noted in his “Theatrum Botanicum”: “The decoction, of the [hempe] roote is sayd to allay inflammations in the head or any other part, ” and that “it is good to be used, for any place that hath beene burnt by fire, if the fresh juyce be mixed with a little oyle or butter.” Then in 1652, proto-pharmaceutical manual “The English Physitian” (later re-titled “The Complete Herbal”) by botanist Nicholas Culpeper systematically cataloged hundreds of outdoor medicinal herbs and their uses – including hemp, whose extract he proclaimed “allayeth Inflammations in the Head … eases the pains of the Gout … Knots in the Joynts, [and] the pains of the Sinews and Hips.”
Nearly two centuries later, the topic of Cannabis and mental health was addressed in more depth by French psychiatrist Jacques-Joseph Moreau. As you may recall from the “HasHistory” installment of Cannthropology (Aug. 2021), Dr. Moreau co-founded Paris’ infamous Club des Hashischins, in part to study the effects of hashish on its members. The results were published in his 1845 book “Hashish and Mental Illness” – the first scientific psychiatric work on the topic, in which he concluded that the drug reproduced the effects of certain mental illnesses, but was also helpful in aiding sleep, increasing the appetite and suppressing headaches.
But arguably, the man most responsible for introducing Cannabis into modern Western medicine was an Irish physician named William Brooke O’Shaughnessy.
As a young man, O’Shaughnessy studied anatomy, chemistry and forensic toxicology in Scotland – earning a doctorate in medicine from the renowned University of Edinburgh Medical School in 1829. On August 8, 1833, he joined the British East India Company and was assigned to India’s Bengal province, where he served first as an assistant surgeon in their army, then as Professor of Chemistry at the Medical College of Calcutta. During this time in India, O’Shaughnessy observed indigenous doctors use Cannabis extracts, edibles and drinks (such as bhang lassi) to treat various illnesses that had confounded doctors back in the UK (e.g. tetanus) and resolved to study the plant’s medicinal effects scientifically.
During the mid-1830s, he began administering Cannabis compounds to every kind of animal he could get his hands on – from domestic pets like mice, rabbits, cats and dogs, to livestock like pigs, cows, sheep, goats and horses, to various fish and birds. After establishing the substance’s relative safety, he graduated his experiments to human subjects (including himself). Over the course of his investigations, he concluded that Cannabis medicines were effective against a wide array of conditions, including muscle spasms, migraines, rabies, rheumatism, insomnia, epilepsy, depression and tetanus. He also found hemp tinctures specifically to be highly effective as an analgesic and anticonvulsant.
In 1839, after years of study, O’Shaughnessy released his results through the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta – a comprehensive 40-page report entitled “On the Preparations of the Indian Hemp, or Gunjah (Cannabis Indica): Their Effects on the Animal System in Health, and their Utility in the Treatment of Tetanus and other Convulsive Diseases.” Three years later, he returned to England with a significant amount of Cannabis and its various preparations, which he eagerly shared – along with his research – with British pharmacists and physicians.
In 1843, O’Shaughnessy’s findings were published in London’s “Provincial Medical Journal and Retrospect of the Medical Sciences” and were received as a revelation. Within a few years, pharmacists all across Europe were offering their customers Cannabis remedies for many ailments. Queen Victoria herself reportedly consumed a Cannabis tincture to ease her menstrual pains after it was recommended by her physician Sir Robert Russell (who’d also written extensively about Cannabis). Indeed, O’Shaughnessy’s work would inspire half a century of new medical research into Cannabis.
THE GOLDEN AGE
In his classic “Marihuana Reconsidered” (1971), Dr. Lester Grinspoon notes: “Between 1839 and 1900, more than one hundred articles appeared in medical journals describing the medicinal properties of the plant.” These published pieces included the first U.S. government-funded study by Dr. R.R. M’Meens’ Committee on Cannabis Indica in 1860, as well as papers by H.A. Hare in 1887, Britain’s J.R. Reynolds in 1890, and Dr. J.B. Mattison in 1891, among others … all of which extolled the various benefits – and side effects – of Cannabis medicines.
This flood of scientific literature helped usher in a new golden age for medical marijuana. For the first time in 1850, Cannabis was listed as a recognized treatment in the United States Pharmacopoeia, and four years later, in the U.S. Dispensatory – officially legitimizing its use as a medicine by the state. Between 1842 and 1937, “Cannabis Indica” or “Indian Hemp” became the third most used compound (after alcohol and opium) in the majority of so-called “patent medicines” – all of which, thanks to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, were required to list those compounds as “poison.” By the 1930s, over 2,000 Cannabis medicines were being produced by nearly 300 different manufacturers, including major pharmaceutical companies like Merck, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Parke-Davis and Eli Lilly. In fact, in the late 1890s, Eli Lilly and Parke-Davis even partnered to breed their own strain called “Cannabis Americana” on a farm in Indiana, which Parke-Davis later sold in their catalogs. Cannabis remedies were even sold in the Sears-Roebuck catalog and advertised in prominent publications like Vanity Fair and the Chicago Tribune. Cannabis soon became the top-recommended treatment for over 100 different ailments, with its flowers, hash, tinctures and tonics sold at nearly every corner drugstore and apothecary in America.
DECLINE & DISFAVOR
So why did Cannabis medicines suddenly fall out of favor and effectively disappear for over half a century?
One reason was volatility. Cannabis medicines had short shelf lives, their dosage was difficult to standardize, and patients’ reactions to them were unpredictable due to variations in the potency and chemical compositions of the plants, which weren’t fully understood at the time. When new synthetic, single-agent drugs (such as aspirin and opiates) were developed with more stable chemical compounds, longer shelf lives and more precise dosing methods, Cannabis meds began to fall out of favor with medical professionals.
Another reason was the invention of the modern hypodermic syringe in 1853, which allowed water-soluble drugs to be injected rather than ingested for faster effects. Since Cannabis medicines were not water-soluble, they couldn’t be injected and were eventually rejected in favor of other medications that were (such as opioids).
Aside from these practical concerns, there was also the politics: A drastic change in social attitudes towards Cannabis occurred during the early 20th century, thanks to prohibitionist propaganda from yellow journalists and the newly-appointed drug czar Harry Anslinger, who – by referring to it by its Mexican name “marijuana” rather than the familiar Cannabis or hemp – roused widespread condemnation of the plant. Though the public at large didn’t realize that the “evil Mexican weed” was just the same drug that was already in their favorite medications, the medical community sure did. In fact, when Anslinger’s Marihuana Tax Act was introduced in Congress in May 1937, the American Medical Association was among those most outspokenly opposed to it. In his testimony to Congress, AMA member/lawyer Dr. William Creighton Woodward challenged the law’s use of the term “marijuana” and its assertions of the drug’s links to addiction and crime. He also explained that the law would place an unfair financial burden on the medical community, and therefore severely hinder any further research into the medical potential of Cannabis. Woodward proposed instead that Cannabis could be added to the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, which would have regulated and taxed it more reasonably. But despite these sensible objections, Congress nevertheless passed the Marihuana Tax Act, which essentially ended the study and use of medicinal Cannabis in America.
Five years later, Cannabis was removed from the U.S. Pharmacopoeia. It wouldn’t be until the passage of California’s Compassionate Care Act in 1996 – over 50 years later – that the medical use of Cannabis would once again be recognized by U.S. law.
For more on medicinal Cannabis history, listen to Episode #18 of our podcast at worldofcannabis.museum/cannthropology.