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The Sordid History of Female Cannabis Use

"Women's medicine comes near the bottom of the list in terms of priorities and research, unfortunately."

The connection between Cannabis and women’s health dates back as far as Ancient Mesopotamia. Used in conjunction with herbs and beer, Cannabis was believed to relieve pain from menstruation and assist with easing difficult childbirth. Its usage continued in pharaonic Egypt, with Cannabis being imbibed orally, rectally, vaginally and topically. In fact, according to preeminent global medical Cannabis expert Dr. Ethan Russo, there is evidence to suggest that many of the world’s civilizations have employed medical Cannabis to treat women’s ailments.

Nevertheless, modern medicine has eschewed female Cannabis use.

“When I began researching medical Cannabis 25 years ago, I was struck by the frequency of citations to these kinds of gynecological issues in the old literature. [Cannabis] was absolutely a mainstream treatment in the 19th century and among the most common reasons that anyone could use Cannabis. So, I was finding that there was a severe mismatch about what had been done historically versus current attitudes about the issue,” explained Dr. Russo during a recent phone interview.

Preeminent global medical Cannabis expert Dr. Ethan Russo.
Nakean Photography Preeminent global medical Cannabis expert Dr. Ethan Russo.

What Dr. Russo’s research unveiled is something many women have experienced firsthand: the prioritization of potential pregnancy and successful childbirth over the health and wellness of would-be mothers.

“Women’s medicine comes near the bottom of the list in terms of priorities and research, unfortunately. And then there’s still this prevalent attitude that Cannabis is dangerous to women of childbearing age and can inhibit pregnancy, when in fact, that’s not the case,” explained Dr. Russo. “The National Institute on Drug Abuse has spent the last 40 years trying to document the ills of Cannabis use when [the evidence] isn’t there.”

To better understand the implications of the medical community turning its back on medicinal Cannabis for women’s health, let’s look at the case of endometriosis – a painful disorder characterized by abnormal tissue growth outside of the uterus.

Endometriosis affects an estimated 176 million women worldwide, regardless of their ethnic and social background. Unfortunately, without adequate medical care, many remain undiagnosed and untreated. Endometriosis.org reports that on average, it takes 6.7 years of symptoms for patients ages 18–45 to be diagnosed with the often debilitating illness.

Contemporary treatments for endometriosis focus on symptom relief and include exploratory surgery, hormonal treatment to suppress and delay the recurrence and progression of the disease, and opioids for pain management. However, at least 50% of patients experience a recurrence of symptoms and tissue regrowth post-surgery. The result is chronic pain and, in many cases, infertility.

“When you start looking at quality of life issues and the economic impact of this kind of disorder, it’s astounding,” said Dr. Russo.

Despite a lack of support from many in the medical community, some researchers, like Australia’s Justin Sinclair, are paving the way for medical Cannabis. A research fellow and Ph.D. student at NICM Health Research Institute at Western Sydney University, Sinclair’s research focuses specifically on the use of Cannabis to treat, not mask, the symptoms of endometriosis.

Sinclair’s research has found that the uterus contains very high amounts of anandamide, the first endocannabinoid to be discovered. The density of cannabinoid receptors within the uterus makes the organ significantly more responsive to Cannabis compounds.

“It’s one of those things that pharmacists or, in many instances, some doctors, would call a ‘dirty drug’ because it can actually target so many different receptors at once. I would argue that’s the strength of Cannabis and why so many people are using it, not just for endometriosis, but so many other things – because it can tackle pain, all the way through to a lot of the comorbid symptoms that come with chronic illness,” explained Sinclair on a December 12, 2021 podcast with CBD Padrino in Australia.

Dr. Russo concurs with Sinclair’s findings and believes that Cannabis could be one of the keys to curing endometriosis.

“I think that with the right combination of Cannabis components – in other words, a preparation that has the right ingredients – that a very good approach could be available to treating [endometriosis]. Certainly, there’s a crying need out there for development,” said Dr. Russo.

Colorado-based Foria Wellness is currently one of the only commercial companies manufacturing Cannabis products specifically for women. Among the company’s most popular products are the Relief Suppositories with CBD. Customers rave about the product’s ability to relieve menstrual cramps, painful sex, and yes, even endometriosis symptoms.

Still, the use of Cannabis to treat women’s health has a long way to go.

“I think it would take a group of women with a lot of money to fund the effort if things are going to change. It’s just not going to be coming from the government here,” said Dr. Russo, with an audible sigh.

About OHara Shipe

OHara was born in the frigid north with skates on her feet and a hockey stick in her hand. Now a retired pro athlete, she has found her passion for covering all things Cannabis in her home state of Alaska.

This article was originally published in the January 2022 issue of all Leaf Magazines.

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