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Medical Marijuana and Cannabis Use History

jefferson quote on hemp Medical Marijuana and Cannabis Use HistoryMany civilizations throughout history have had a powerful dependence on hemp, mankind’s most durable fiber resource, an under-utilized renewable resource, and with little doubt on of the most misunderstood and controverial of plants.

While modern-day proponents of industrial hemp [link to industrial hemp article]  often distance these uses of the plant from the drug called marijuana, the two terms—hemp and marijuana—apply to different uses of the same plant species. A history of marijuana as medicine would be incomplete without some reference to the multitude of benefits provided by this extraordinary weed.

mm bottle1 150x150 Medical Marijuana and Cannabis Use HistoryUntil 2008, the earliest known evidence of marijuana in human hands dated back approximately 10,000 years to a prehistoric village that was discovered in Taiwan in 1972.  Pottery shards unearthed there bore the distinct impression of hemp cord, conclusively proving that marijuana has been in use since the Stone Age.  However, in 2008, experts are about to publish findings on a dig in Central Asia that features evidence of the use of cannabis by a prehistoric medicine man some 27,000 years ago.

mm buds 150x150 Medical Marijuana and Cannabis Use HistoryKnown in Chinese languages as Ma, this hardy, annual herb is arguably the “mother” of agricultural civilization. Ma provided to be a renewable food source and a durable textile fiber for the manufacture of rope and fabric, setting agro-industrial China far ahead of hunter-gatherer types in other parts of the world. Besides its many textile and medicinal uses, marijuana yields seeds rich in B vitamins, protein, and amino acids, which have served as China’s second or third most important agricultural food source for thousands of years.

eygptian hemp god 149x150 Medical Marijuana and Cannabis Use HistoryWhile evidence of marijuana in use as a medicine has been found in Egyptian ruins dated as early as the 16th century BC, and digs at ancient Hebrew sites have unearthed evidence of medical marijuana as an aid to childbirth long before the time of Christ, the many uses of Ma have proved to be an invaluable resource in the continuous survival of Chinese culture from its distant origins to the present day.

The earliest known material identified as hemp fabric was found in an ancient burial site from the Chou Dynasty (1122-1249 BC), confirming numerous historical references to the importance of hemp in early China. In the book Rite of Rites (circa 200 BC), mourners were instructed to wear hemp fabric out of respect for the dead, a tradition which survives to this day.

Perhaps most importantly, the Chinese invention of hemp paper around 200 BC revolutionized record-keeping processes fundamental to orderly government. Although the secret was kept from the rest of the world for 900 years, hemp papermaking eventually became indispensable to the rapid development of all civilizations throughout the world. Thousands of years before hemp paper became a central fixture of European civilizations, the industrial and medical uses of Ma were deeply rooted in China, the country historically known as “the land of mulberry and hemp.”

In ancient China, medicine men used hemp stalks carved with ornate snake figures as magical amulets to exorcise demons believed to be the cause of physical illness. These healers attempted to cure all sorts of diseases by beating the headboards of their patients’ beds with magical hemp stalks while reciting spells and incantations. Japanese Shinto priests employed a similar ceremony using a short wand bound with undyed hemp fibers. The purity of white hemp was thought to exorcise evil demons. While contemporary scientists dismiss such accounts as ignorant superstitions, a more thoughtful observer might ponder the origins of such long-lived legends.

Shen-Nung, a Chinese emperor who ruled around 2800 BC, is credited with introducing medicines to the Chinese people. Like all mythical figures, he is recalled through time in both fact and fantasy. It is said that Shen-Nung had a transparent abdomen and intentionally ingested as many as 70 different plants per day so that he could watch their effects and discover their various qualities. Shen-Nung identified hundreds of different medicines, which are compiled in the world’s oldest medical text, the Pen Ts’ao. For that he was deified and is still acclaimed as the father of traditional Chinese medicine. Prior to the reorganization of China as a communist country, medicinal drug retailers offered periodic discounts in honor of Shen-Nung.

According to the Pen Ts’ao, ma-fen, the flowers of the female marijuana plant, contain the greatest amount of yin energy: yin being the receptive female attribute that is, in traditional Chinese philosophy and medicine, dynamically linked with yang, the creative male element. Ma-fen was prescribed in cases of a loss of yin, such as in menstrual fatigue, rheumatism, malaria, beri-beri, constipation, and absentmindedness. The Pen Ts’ao warned that eating too many Ma seeds could cause one to see demons, but that, taken over a long period of time, marijuana seeds could enable one to communicate with spirits. Shen-Nung also instructed the Chinese people in the cultivation of hemp for clothing and other textile uses, an agricultural art still practiced in rural areas of China.

In the first century AD, Taoist alchemists inhaled the smoke of burning hemp seeds in order to cause visions, which were valued as a means of achieving immortality. Marijuana was considered a superior elixir that rejuvenated the mind and body. In more pragmatic disciplines, traditional Chinese physicians have used Ma for a wide variety of medical conditions. Hua T’o, a famous surgeon of the second century AD, performed complicated surgery using ma-yo, an anesthetic made from hemp resin and wine. When acupuncture and medicines failed to effect a cure, Hua T’o performed complex surgery, including amputations and organ graftings tied with sutures. With the use of ma-yo, these surgeries were reportedly painless. In the tenth century AD, Chinese physicians reported that ma-yo was useful in the treatment of waste diseases and injuries. Ma treatments were used to clear blood and cool fevers, as well as to cure rheumatism and to ease childbirth.

In Western civilizations, as in China, the durable material crafted from tough hemp stalks has been of immeasurable significance throughout history. The ancient Greeks called in kannabis. Greek sailors traded kannabis across the Aegean Sea as early as the sixth century BC, according to written records on hemp trade from that era. Twentieth-century archeologists found hemp fiber bundles in the cargo hold of a Carthaginian trade ship that had sunk near Sicily around 300 BC. In 450 BC, Herodotus, the great Greek historian, wrote of the fine quality of hemp clothing produced by the Greek-speaking Thracians.

Four hundred years later, Plutarch wrote that the Thracians made a habit of throwing the tops of the kannabis plant onto a fire, thereby becoming intoxicated by the smoke. It was a custom unfamiliar to the wine-loving children of Zeus. A minor reference to the use of kannabis as a remedy for backache is found in Greek literature from about 400 BC. That is the only known reference to the medical use of marijuana in ancient Greece, although it is known that both Arabic and Hebrew medical practices did use kannabis medications during that same period.

In 70 AD, a Greek physician named Discordes in the employ of conquering Roman legions collected a wealth of information on medicinal plants. Discordes’ text, entitled Materia Medica, contained the fruits of his world travels with the descriptions, local names, natural habitats, and indications for treatment of various symptoms. Among those 600 plants, Discordes identified Cannabis sativa L. (from the Greek kannabis) as being useful in manufacturing rope and as producing seeds whose juice was effective for treating earaches and for diminishing sexual desire. Discordes’ Materia Medica was hugely successful, translated into every language of the known world, and remained an indispensable reference manual of Western medicine for at least 1500 years.

The English word canvas is derived from the word cannabis, an etymological indication of the supreme importance of hemp fiber in European seafaring technology. Clearly, the colonial expansion of European empires into remote parts of the world could not have occurred without the development of cannabis-based technologies. In 1492, for example, each one of Columbus’ transatlantic vessels carried more than 80 tons of hemp rigging and sails, the product of untold thousands of man-hours. Many stately fortunes were built on the toil of peasants in tall fields of hemp, which eventually became the most important industrial crop in most emerging countries. At the same time, European knowledge of medical cannabis was limited to the short references of Discordes and various unrecorded folk remedies throughout medieval times.

As Western civilization moved from the Dark Ages into the Renaissance period, the developing medical since uncovered many substantial facts, including a remarkable number of benefits ascribed to medical marijuana. In 1621, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton suggested that cannabis might be useful for treating depression. In 1982, The New London Dispensatory briefly covered the use of cannabis seeds to cure coughs and jaundice. The New English Dispensatory of 1794 reported an increased understanding of the medicinal uses of the cannabis plant, including the treatment of coughs, venereal disease, and urinary incontinence. The section on cannabis notes that, “Although the seeds only have hitherto been principally in use, yet other parts of the plant seem to be more active, and may be considered as deserving more attention.” In 1814, Nicholas Culpepper published his Complete Herbal, which listed all of the known medicinal uses of cannabis. He included all of the applications previously published and a few new ones, such as easing colic, allaying humors of the bowels, staying troublesome bleeding, reducing inflammation of the head, and reducing pains on the hips and joints. Culpepper also recommended cannabis as an additive to salves in the treatment of burns. There is no historical evidence that European physicians were aware of any psychoactive effects associated with cannabis use until the exploration of India broadened European understanding.

In 1753, a Swedish botanist named Carl Lineaus compiled the most complete reference manual of botanical classifications to date, entitled Species Planetarium. Linaeus adopted Discordes’ classification of Cannabis sativa, but almost immediately some botanists argued that the newly studied Indian cannabis plant was distinctly different from the well-known European Cannabis sativa grown for industrial and medical uses. In 1783, a French biologist named Jean Lamarck examined the two types in his compendium entitled Encyclopedia. Lamarck noted that the species Cannabis sativa commonly grown for fiber and textile uses was characterized by a height of twelve to sixteen feet, long stalks, sparse foliage, and slender leaves. Cannabis native to India, on the other hand, was typically four to five feet tall at maturity and was densely foliated with bushy clusters of comparatively broad leaves. Lamarck dubbed the second species Cannabis indica in deference to its country of origin.

There are literally hundreds of subspecies of cannabis, and botanists continue to argue over exact scientific classifications, but most experts concur that there are at least two distinctly different types comprising all of the strains currently in existence. In 1913, Lyster Dewey, botanist and hemp expert from the United States Department of Agriculture, reported in the USDA Yearbook that Cannabis indica was, “… different in general appearance from any of the numerous forms frown by this department from seed obtained in nearly all countries where hemp is cultivated.”

Modern hybridization has altered the natural inclinations of the cannabis plant as growers have sought to promote particular traits, blurring distinction between the two primary species. However, those natural tendencies remain at least partially visible. Typically, the tall stalks of Cannabis sativa are cultivated for fiber and seed industries, while the short Cannabis indica bushes are cultivated for the medicinal and psychoactive properties of their flowers. Cannabis sativa grown for industrial uses usually contains only minor amounts of psychoactive compounds. Proper cultivation can produce higher levels of therapeutic compounds in some types of Cannabis sativa. The more potent Cannabis indica varieties, on the other hand, are not suitable for industrial fiber production due to the shortness of their bushy stalks. While this contrast distinguishes the natural tendencies of the two primary varieties, many medicinal growers have discovered that the most potent strains combine the best traits of both.

For more information on modern day food uses of hemp and cannabis products, click here.


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For the complete story of Hemp and Cannabis, read the extensive information in OWC’s research library.

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