You could be forgiven for thinking that the history of medical marijuana started in the
late 20 the century, but in fact the history of cannabis and its medical potential dates all the
way back to 2737 B.C. Records from that era show that the Chinese emperor Shen Neng
was already prescribing the plant to treat everything from memory problems and malaria
to rheumatism and gout.
The popularity of marijuana as a medicine quickly spread throughout the Asian continent,
eventually making its way as far as the Middle East and the eastern part of the African
continent. Records from the era show that some of the Hindu sects on the Indian
subcontinent used the drug to relieve everything from chronic pain to acute stress.
But those early advocates of medical marijuana also recognized the potential problems
the drug could cause. While prescribing marijuana to treat everything from stress to the
pain associated with childbirth, those early doctors warned that the overuse of the drug
could cause such serious problems as blindness and impotence.
Medical Marijuana in America
While the history of medical marijuana use around the world literally stretches for
thousands of years, the history of marijuana as a medication in America is much shorter.
Hemp was widely grown in the American colonies, but the plant that also produces
marijuana was valued as a fabric, not as a medicine.
Even so, by the late eighteenth century, American medical journals were recommending
hemp roots and seeds to treat such varied conditions as venereal disease, skin conditions
and incontinence. But it was an Irish doctor by the name of William O’Shaughnessy who
first popularized the medical use of marijuana, first in England and later in the United
States as well. Like his predecessors in ancient China, Dr. O’Shaughnessy also used
marijuana to treat the pain associated with rheumatism. The good doctor also
recommended medical marijuana for the nausea caused by such diverse diseases as
cholera, rabies and tetanus.
How Opium Helped to Regulate Marijuana
Ironically enough, it was opium that helped to bring a temporary end to the freewheeling
use of marijuana as a medicine. Opium was widely used as an ingredient in a number of
supposed miracle cures and patent medicines of the time, so much so that an estimated 2
to 5 percent of Americans were unknowingly addicted to the substance by the end of the
19 th century.
This widespread addiction, and the fear of the problems opium could produce, lead to the
1906 passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the creation of the Food and Drug
Administration. This act brought the distribution of both pure opium and morphine under
the control of physicians, and although it did not apply to marijuana specifically, it did
lay the framework for the laws that would one day apply to cannabis and inhibit its use as
The world is still catching up to those early days, when marijuana was widely used as a
medicine, and today new research is underway to separate fact from fiction when it
comes to the medical use of marijuana. Today a number of states were have already
passed laws allowing cancer patients, AIDS sufferers and others to smoke marijuana for
the relief of their conditions. Scientists in the United States and around the world
continue to do more research, and for the first time in quite a while there is real hope that
the laws governing the use of marijuana have begun to change and give those scientists
the freedom they need to continue their work.