For nearly 100 years, countries across the globe have been waging a war on the cannabis plant that is only just beginning to end. Though public opinion has slowly shifted to a more positive position, years of consistently negative messaging with regard to cannabis have led to an inevitable lack of perspective. It’s easy to forget the storied history of this ancient plant, which humans have cultivated for at least 6000 years. Many people have no idea that cannabis was still in use as a pharmaceutical product through the early 20th century. Furthermore, many associate cannabis solely with its psychoactive compounds and are unaware of the hundreds of other medically beneficial qualities that are only just getting their due research today. By looking at cannabis through the lens of history, from its earliest uses to the less-than-scientific claims that led to its widespread prohibition in the 1900s, we can get a fuller picture of this ancient plant and its many promising uses in the future.
Early history: cannabis use before the modern era
Long before the negative associations of the 20th century took hold, the cannabis plant was cultivated across the world for purposes ranging from nutritional, to medicinal, to ritual. Scholars believe that cannabis first appeared millions of years ago during the Pleistocene era, but paleobotanical studies trace humans’ earliest interaction with cannabis to Central and East Asia in the Holocene era, nearly 12,000 years ago. From this region, it appears to have spread all over the continents, as fossil evidence of cannabis found in archeological sites across Asia and Europe has revealed.
In Japan, archeological evidence dates cannabis use to 10,000 BCE, where cannabis fibers were used for clothing, bow strings, and fishing lines. For China in the 4000 years BCE, cannabis was used for its fibers in the form of clothing and paper, but we also see the first documented use of cannabis for medicinal purposes in the “Shen Nung Pen Ts’ao Ching,” an ancient Chinese pharmacopeia detailing over 2000 years of traditional remedies. The “Pen Ts’ao Ching” describes cannabis flowers being used to treat all sorts of ailments, including rheumatic pain, constipation, malaria, and gynecological disorders. In traditional Japanese medicine, cannabis was also used as a skin tonic to treat parasites and poisonous bites.
Whereas in China it seems that the psychoactive uses of cannabis were restricted to shamans, the medical and ritual uses were not so separated in India, where cannabis seems to have spread around 1000 BCE. The Susrita Samhita, a foundational text of Ayurvedic medicine, describes some of the medical properties of cannabis, including analgesic, anesthetic, and antiparasitic qualities, alongside recommendations for its more psychological uses, including as relief from anxiety and fatigue, and as an aphrodisiac.
In Europe and the Mediterranean, cannabis remnants dated to 450 BCE have been found at gravesites in Germany, Siberia, and Ukraine. Cannabis was likely spread by Scythians moving from Central Asia through Russia. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, cannabis was used by the Scythians as incense during funerals and banquets. In the Assyrian Empire, the first written appearance of cannabis comes from around 600 BCE, where people were using the plant for both physical ailments such as swelling and bruising, arthritis, and kidney stones, and for treating depression.
For all these purposes and more, cannabis continued to be widely used for hundreds of years. It wasn’t until the Medieval era that Europe saw its first major case of aversion to cannabis. Because of its ritual uses in the Arab countries, it was often mistaken for opium, leading to its demonisation by the Catholic church when Pope Innocent VIII condemned cannabis practices as an “unholy sacrament of the satanic mass” in 1484. In spite of this, cannabis use continued in Europe for the next several hundred years. The German Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179 CE) described cannabis as useful in treating stomach pain and healing wounds. Polish botanist Symon Sirenius (1540-1611 CE) recommended cannabis resin as a salve for burns and hemp roots boiled in water for relieving suffering joints. English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616–1654 CE) extolled cannabis for its anti‐inflammatory, antiseptic, and anticonvulsant properties, while scholar Robert Burton (1577–1640 CE), author of “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” listed it among his remedies for treating depression.
Cannabis was still widely in use through the 19th century, when Irish physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessy conducted the first pharmacological testing on cannabis according to the scientific method. Having worked in India, he studied the uses of cannabis among Indian people and used their recipes to prepare tinctures for his patients with rheumatism, cholera, tetanus, and those suffering with seizures. His patients responded well, leading him to conclude in his writings that “in Hemp the profession has gained an anticonvulsive remedy of the greatest value.” Increasing numbers of scientific studies confirming the efficacy of cannabis in conjunction with the rise of the pharmaceutical market led to commercially available formulations of cannabis from laboratories including Bristol-Meyers in the United States and Merck in Germany.
The 20th century: panic and prohibition
Internationally, the beginning of talks to control cannabis came with the growing fear of its recreational use, exacerbated by the growing spread of opium, cocaine, and other drugs. The League of Nations met in a series of conventions to discuss the matter, but as scientific research had largely proven the harmless nature of cannabis, attempts to ban the plant largely stalled.
The most consequential efforts to ban cannabis began in the United States. On the heels of the temperance movement which had successfully led to the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s, a growing campaign against cannabis began. While American druggists had used cannabis in various pharmaceutical products for decades, the practice of smoking it was introduced only in the early 20th century by Mexican immigrants. A xenophobic moral panic and a campaign of sensationalistic journalism detailing supposed violence associated with cannabis led 26 states to enact cannabis bans between 1914 and 1925. Then, in 1937, Harry Anslinger, supervisor of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, introduced the Marijuana Tax Act to Congress to effectively ban cannabis in the United States.
Anslinger testified in front of the US Congress, “Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, jazz musicians, and entertainers. Their satanic music is driven by marijuana, and marijuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others. It is a drug that causes insanity, criminality, and death – the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.” In light of this statement, there is no denying the racial motivations behind the Marijuana Tax Act, which easily passed without consideration for medical or scientific data.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United States’ position of dominance in the newly created United Nations and its Commission on Narcotic Drugs enabled the country to forcefully insist on the international condemnation of cannabis. The United States maintained that cannabis had no medical value and posed serious risks, ignoring contemporary scientific reports that suggested the opposite. Despite objections from countries such as India, whose people still had many traditional uses and preparations for cannabis, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs concluded that cannabis had no medicinal or scientific value, and at the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, cannabis was classified as a Schedule I and Schedule IV substance, criminalising the plant for decades to come.
The multitude of forgotten cannabinoids
Amidst all the 20th-century panic about the psychoactive effects of cannabis, it seems that many people have forgotten the myriad benefits of the plant that are purely physical. Cannabis contains at least 113 known cannabinoids, the active substances in the plant which work by interacting with the natural receptors of the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is part of our central nervous system. The two most well-known cannabinoids are THC, which has a psychoactive effect, and CBD, which does not. You can learn more about the positive effects of CBD on the body here. But THC and CBD are just two of the known cannabinoids, and research is only just beginning to scratch the surface of the powers of the rest.
Still being studied are the plenty of non-psychoactive cannabinoids with great potential for medical use. CBDV, for example, shows promise when it comes to treating epilepsy and relieving nausea. Another compound, CBG, has been shown to promote neurogenesis, the regrowing of new brain cells, and may help fight glaucoma, skin conditions, and even certain types of cancer. The cannabinoid CBC is helpful in relieving pain, and may also help protect the brain from neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. With so many less-known cannabinoids only just beginning to reveal their benefits, it’s an exciting time for research into the full powers of the cannabis plant.
Changing attitudes from the late 20th century to today
Almost as soon as mid-century bans on cannabis went into effect did opposition begin to mount. In 1963, CBD was identified as a separate chemical structure from THC, and the body of scientific evidence regarding the medical efficacy of cannabinoids began to grow again. In the 1970s, a number of US states began to relax their policies on personal use of cannabis. At the same time in Europe, the Dutch government was re-evaluating and loosening their own laws, leading to the setup of the coffeeshop system. By 2006, the World Drug Report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime recognized that “much of the early material on cannabis is now considered inaccurate, and that a series of studies in a range of countries have exonerated cannabis of many of the charges levelled against it.” It continued, “medical use of the active ingredients, if not the plant itself, is championed by respected professionals.”
This recognition proved true when the first plant-derived, pharmaceutical-grade CBD medication, Epidiolex, was approved for the purpose of treating seizure disorders by the US Food and Drug Administration in June of 2018. In approving this drug, which was shown in trials to significantly reduce the frequency of seizures in patients with Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut Syndromes, the FDA also released a statement warning of the unregulated nature of the current CBD market. Many companies have taken advantage of the current boom in public awareness of CBD to sell products with unscientifically sound claims of their efficacy or unreliable concentrations, and regulating bodies have only recently been able to catch up. In just February of this year, 2021, the European Commission added plant-derived CBD to its Cosmetic Ingredients Database (CosIng), listing its beneficial functions as anti-sebum, antioxidant, skin conditioning, and skin protecting.
Today, public attitudes and recent legislation show that the tides are rapidly changing for cannabis. As of November 2020, 15 US States, accounting for 33% of the US population, had legalised cannabis for recreational purposes. Following a report by the World Health Organization’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence that CBD “has no potential for abuse and no potential to produce dependence,” the European Court of Justice published a statement that CBD should not be considered a drug according to the meaning of the UN Convention of 1961. At this point, the majority of European countries have legalised medical marijuana, and many have decriminalised possession of small amounts of cannabis.
When it comes to attitudes toward cannabis today, many people still lack clarity on what is true and what is false, as well as on the full range of its effects. The growing trend of acceptance and legalisation may provide opportunities for more in-depth scientific study of this super plant and its various facets, revealing and confirming what so many cultures have known for millennia.
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