The History of Medical Cannabis

There has been much discussion and debate in the UK around the perceived lack of evidence for the use of cannabis for medical purposes - particularly in relation to its efficacy, harms and mechanism of action. Here at The Primary Care Cannabis Network, we want to challenge this misconception and outline how cannabis is an essential medicine with a broad range of therapeutic applications.  

Remarkably, the cannabis plant has over 6000 years of documented history through a variety of civilisations spanning centuries. The plant has been explored in many different ways as cultures have recognised and utilised its medical properties. Here is a brief timeline surrounding cannabis:

4000 BC
The earliest record of cannabis use was in approx. 4000 BC where is was considered one of the ‘five-grains’ and farmed as a major food crop.
Hemp was extracted and used for developing textiles, rope, paper and oil.

2737 BC
In Ancient China, Emperor Shen-Nung recognised it as treatment for a range of conditions including gout, rheumatism and malaria.

2000-1000 BC
Cannabis has been discovered in Hindu religious texts, described as a ‘joy-giver’ and ‘bringer of freedom’. Despite these translations, we can see cannabis wasn’t smoked for a ‘high’, but rather at devotional services and in religious rituals.

Ayurvedic Medical Practice, which originated in the Indian subcontinent, used cannabis to treat a range of ailments including epilepsy, rabies, anxiety and bronchitis.

1550 BC
The oldest known ‘complete’ medical textbook – the Ebers Papyrus, or the Egyptian Medical Papyrus – makes note of medical cannabis being used to treat inflammation.
Ancient Egyptians used the plants suppositories for relieving pain caused by haemorrhoids.

450-200 BC
Throughout the Greco-Roman empire, Greek doctor Claudius Galen noted cannabis was widely being consumed specifically for toothaches and earaches. Women of the Roman Elite also used the plant to alleviate labour pains in childbirth.

1025 - 1500 AD
The medieval Persian medical writer, Avicenna, published ‘Avicenna’s Canon’ where he described cannabis as an effective treatment for gout (confirming what was found in 2737 AD), infectious wounds and severe headaches.

Arab traders began to bring cannabis to India from Eastern Africa, where it was already being spread inland. During this time, cannabis was used throughout both continents to treat malaria, asthma, high fevers and dysentery. The Spanish Conquest in 1500, brought cannabis and hemp to the Americans, where it was introduced for production of clothing and rope!

1700 - 1900
French leader Napoleon brought cannabis to France after visiting Egypt, where he witnessed it being used for its analgesic and sedative properties. The plant had also been discovered to treat tumours, coughs and jaundice.

William O’Shaughnessy – a well-known Irish doctor – famously introduced cannabis to Western medicine, using it for the treatment of migraines, insomnia and anticonvulsant. During this time, cannabis was rapidly rising in a pharmaceutical context.

1900 - 2000
Medical cannabis was made available as an over the counter medicine in the 1900’s, where it was used to treat nausea, rheumatism and labour pains. More than 100 papers at the time published the successes of it therapeutic use. The antibacterial and anti-glaucoma properties of cannabis were discovered throughout the early 20th century.

In 1961, The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was developed – a prohibitionist approach to the non-medical and non-scientific use of cannabis. This remains the basis of international laws on cannabis to this day!

Despite thousands of years of proof for cannabis as a medical treatment, cannabis was classified as a Schedule 1 Drug in the USA 1970. Further research into the plant was restricted and listed as having no accepted medical use.

Following the discovery of the CBD1 and CBD2 receptors in 1988, California becomes the first US state to allow the prescription of cannabis for medical use in 1996.

Present day
Governments across the globe have established legal frameworks which allow patients to legally access medical cannabis from licensed producers.

Cannabis for medical use is now legal in over 50 countries worldwide – while we continue to fight for more access to medical cannabis prescribing in the UK.