History of cannabis

The plant Cannabis sativa L., commonly known as cannabis, marijuana, ganja, or hemp, has been cultivated by humans since the early Neolithic, approximately 10,000 years ago REFS.

There are records of various uses of different elements of this plant from ancient times. Flowers were used for medicinal purposes and in religious rituals as spiritual connection, seeds were used for its nutritive value and for extracting oil for lamps, while the stem was one of the main sources of fiber, used for making textiles, ropes, etc. REF

The medicinal properties of cannabis were first included in an extensive work on herbal pharmacology conducted around 2,700 B.C. by the legendary Chinese emperor Shen Nung, considered the father of Chinese medicine, which was orally transmitted until it was eventually compiled into the Shen Nung Pen Ts’ao Ching («Classical Work of Roots and Herbs According to Shen Nung»), published around the beginning of our era. REF


In the ancient Egypt, fabrics and ropes were normally made of hemp, and the therapeutic properties of cannabis were also included in numerous papyri from the time. The Ebers Papyrus (ca. 1,500 B.C.) describes that cannabis should be mixed with honey and introduced in the vagina “to cool down the uterus”, likely corresponding to what today is endometriosis and dysmenorrhea, as well as to induce contractions and pain relief during childbirth. REF

Both Hebrew and Aramaic versions of the Old Testament contain references to ‘kaneh bosm’ (interpreted as “aromatic cane”), described for its uses as incense and holy ointment, which it is believed the origin of the term “cannabis”. REFS

Abundant references to the medicinal and spiritual uses of cannabis are found in texts from different ancient civilizations, from Mesopotamia (where in cuneiform it was known as gan-zi-gun-nu) to India (where it was called bangha in Sanskrit), as well as in Greek, Roman, and Arabic cultures. The analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis were recognized by renowned physicians of the time, such as Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.), Dioscorides (40-90 A.D., considered the founder of pharmacology), Galen (129-216 A.D., personal doctor of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius), and Avicenna (980-1037 A.D.), who also recognized its therapeutic value as diuretic, digestive, antiepileptic, and remedy for uterine pain. REFS

The modern history of cannabis in Western Medicine begins with Dr. William O’Shaughnessy, an Irish surgeon destined for India during the first half of the 19th Century. O’Shaughnessy was the first physician to apply the modern scientific method to the study of the medical properties of cannabis. He followed traditional recipes to prepare alcoholic tinctures enriched in cannabis’ active compounds and assessed its safety and efficacy in several animal species, and subsequently conducted clinical testing with his patients. O’Shaughnessy published the results of his investigations in a prestigious English journal in 1943, describing the therapeutic benefits of cannabis tincture to control seizures, as well as in cholera, tetanus, and rabies. REF The famous surgeon concluded: “Of all existing narcotics, it is the safest, and should be used boldly and decisively”.

The results from O’Shaughnessy studies were soon reproduced by colleagues in Europe and the US, leading to the inclusion of cannabis in the United States Pharmacopeia in 1850 for the treatment of several diseases, such as neuralgia, tetanus, typhus, cholera, rabies, dysentery, alcoholism, opiate addiction, leprosy, incontinence, gout, insanity, convulsive disorders, and uterine bleeding, among others. REF

Following economic and political interests of some powerful companies and lobbies, the ban on cannabis began in the US at the beginning of the 20th Century, culminating with the proposal of the Marijuana Tax Act to the American Congress in 1937, which made illegal the growing, use and possession of cannabis in the US. This decision was made without scientific support and against the criteria of the American Medical Association, which publicly announced that marijuana was not a dangerous drug. Accordingly, cannabis was withdrawn from the United States Pharmacopeia in 1942, losing legitimacy of its therapeutic utility. The international pressure continued, and cannabis was eventually included in the Single Convention of Narcotic Drugs, a text drew up at the United Nations in 1961, in which more than 100 countries established various lists to set a legal framework for controlled substances. Cannabis was included in the Schedule I list —substances with addictive properties, presenting a risk of abuse— and the more restrictive Schedule IV list —substances entailing potential risks with no therapeutic value—, thus effectively banning the growing, use and possession of cannabis internationally. This decision was endorsed by the United Nations in 1971 in the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, which also included THC as a controlled substance.

However, at the beginning of the 1990’s, giving the increasing amount of evidence collected worldwide from research labs and clinical experiences of thousands of patients about the remarkable safety and therapeutic efficacy of cannabis in a broad range of diseases, began an international trend to decriminalize cannabis in California and other American states, Israel, and Canada, which has led to the legalization of medical cannabis in about 40 countries by 2022, including most European and American nations.

Noteworthy, in an historical voting in March 2020, the United Nations’ Commission on Narcotic Drugs, following recommendations from the WHO, decided to delete cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention, thus recognizing its therapeutic value and favoring the development of medical cannabis worldwide.

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