An Introduction to Medical Cannabis

Cannabis has a colourful and interesting history and has been used as a treatment by cultures around the world since the beginning of recorded history. With uses dating back to Ancient empires such as Rome, Egypt, and China, it helps to put into perspective recent legal and cultural developments regarding cannabis on a broader historical scale.

Cannabis was regarded among “five grains” in China as early as 4000 BC, and was farmed as a major food crop. Around 2737 BC are found the earliest record of cannabis as a medicinal drug. At this time, Emperor Shen-Nung recognized its treatment properties for over 100 ailments such as gout, rheumatism, and malaria. Nomadic Indo-European peoples used cannabis in steam baths, and also burned cannabis seeds in burial rituals.

In the period 2000-1000 BC, the Atharva Vedas described cannabis as a “source of happiness”, “joy-giver”, and “bringer of freedom” in these Hindu religious texts. At this time, cannabis was smoked at daily devotional services and religious rituals. Cannabis was used in Ayurvedic Medicine and open religious use of cannabis allowed for exploration of medical benefits. During this period, it was used to treat a variety of ailments such as epilepsy, rabies, anxiety, and bronchitis.

The ancient Egyptian medical papyrus of medical knowledge notes that medical cannabis can treat inflammation. Cannabis pollen has been recovered from the mummy of Ramesses II, the Egyptian pharaoh who was mummified after his death in 1213 BC.

The ancient Greek Physician, Dioscorides, prescribed cannabis for toothaches and earaches. Greek doctor Claudius Galen noted it was widely consumed throughout the empire. Women of the Roman elite also used cannabis to alleviate labor pains.

Around 1000 AD, Arabic scholars al-Mayusi and al-Badri regarded cannabis as an effective treatment for epilepsy. The medieval Persian medical writer published “Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine”, stating that cannabis is an effective treatment for gout, edema, infectious wounds, and severe headaches. His work was widely studied from the 13th to 19th centuries, having a lasting impact on Western medicine. Reference

During the 15th century the Spanish brought cannabis to the Americas, where it was used for more practical purposes like rope or clothes. However, years later, it would be used as a psychoactive and medicinal drug.

Napoleon brought cannabis back to France from Egypt, and it was investigated for its pain relieving and sedative qualities. At this time, cannabis would be used to treat tumors, cough, and jaundice.

Irish doctor William O’Shaughnessy introduced the therapeutic uses of cannabis to Western medicine around 1839. He concluded it had no negative medicinal effects, and the plant’s use in a pharmaceutical context would rapidly rise thereafter.

Prohibition commenced in the United States when drug use was declared a crime in the U.S., under the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914. The 1937 Marihuana Tax Act banned the use and sales of cannabis in the United States.

In 1964, the molecular structure of THC, an active component of cannabis, was discovered and synthesized by Israeli chemist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam. However in 1970 cannabis became categorized as a Schedule 1 Drug in the U.S., which limited further research into the plant. It was listed as having “no accepted medical use”.

In 1988, an important scientific find revealed the CBD1 and CBD2 cannabinoid receptors. Today, we know they are some of the most abundant neuroreceptors in the brain. This discovery signaled the dawning of the new age of medicine. As a result of this important new discovery, from 2000 onwards medical cannabis legalization took hold worldwide. Governments, such as those of Canada, Uruguay and various states, begin to legalize cannabis for medical purposes from licensed producers. Reference

In Feb 2016, the Australian Federal Government announced the birth of the medical cannabis industry, when legislation to make available cannabis for medicinal purposes was passed by Parliament.