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The History of Cannabis as Medicine

While legal cannabis may be a new notion in the U.S., prohibition is the true historic outlier. Cannabis has likely been part of human civilization, both for recreational use and as medicine, for thousands of years. Now, as the old order of cannabis prohibition recedes, a new generation is discovering what our ancestors knew for millennia: cannabis holds the power to help people feel better. 

The origins of medicinal cannabis in human civilization

Humans are thought to have discovered the medical properties of cannabis nearly 5,000 years ago(1). The Chinese emperor Fu Hsi wrote positively about cannabis in 2900 BCE, suggesting it was a healing plant that possessed both yin and yang. However, it was Chinese emperor Shen Nung who is thought to have more clearly articulated the medicinal properties of cannabis in 2700 BCE. 

These versatile use cases prompted humans to trade cannabis along the famous Silk Road trade route(2), spreading the plant throughout the region. This early use led famed scientist Carl Sagan to suggest that cannabis might have been humanity’s first agricultural crop. However, it is likely that early varieties of cannabis were more like modern hemp and lacked the necessary amount of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to prompt the intoxicating experience associated with many varieties of the plant today. 

A timeline of medical cannabis throughout history

medical cannabis timeline
  • 2000 BCE: Cannabis was used in northeastern Africa by the ancient Egyptians as a treatment for sore eyes, inflammation, menstrual pain, and hemorrhoids. These uses were recorded in the Ebers Papyrus, which also contains other remedies for common ailments.

  • 1500-1000 BCE: Cannabis is referenced as a healer in The Vedas, which notes both the intoxicating characteristics of the plant – suggesting it could promote relaxation and happiness – as well as the medicinal properties of cannabis for insomnia, pain, and gastrointestinal health.

  • 300 BCE: Cannabis makes its way to the northern region of modern-day Europe, where Scythian nomads are thought to have brought the plant for trading. A reference to cannabis can be found in the writings of Herodotus, which articulates a primitive form of vaporizing that involved placing cannabis onto hot stones.

  • 70 AD: Cannabis is cited as a medicinal herb in De Materia Medica, a collection of notes on medicinal plants by Greek physician and Roman army medic Pedanius Dioscorides. He noted that cannabis produced an extract that could be used to treat earaches.

  • 200 AD: Chinese surgeon Hua Tuo became the first person to reportedly use cannabis as an anesthetic. By mixing cannabis resin together with wine, he developed a mixture that would go on to define anesthesia for the Chinese; today, the Chinese word for anesthesia literally translates to “cannabis intoxication.”

  • 1800: French researchers reported that locals smoked cannabis and drank a cannabis-derived beverage. It was at this time the Western world began to embrace cannabis as a medicine, as the East had for centuries.

  • 1842: Irish doctor Sir William O’Shaugnessy, who served as an army surgeon in India, widely used cannabis for a wide range of conditions. O’Shaugnessy typically prescribed cannabis tinctures to help his patients sleep, relieve pain, and relax.

  • 1851: Cannabis was officially added to the U.S. Pharmacopeia as a treatment for many conditions, including typhus, cholera, rabies, dysentery, alcoholism, and opiate addiction.

  • 1937: Despite objections from the American Medical Association, the Marihuana Tax Act  outlawed both recreational and medical use of cannabis in the U.S., following an extensive media campaign demonizing the plant and attempting to link it with xenophobic reactions to immigration. Notably, the word “marijuana” was relatively unknown to U.S. doctors at the time. As a result, many in the medical community did not realize that the Marihuana Tax Act would effectively end their ability to recommend medical cannabis to patients. 
  • 1964: Researcher Dr. Raphael Mechoulam identified and described the structure of THC. This discovery led Mechoulam and other researchers to discover the endogenous cannabinoid system, as well as other cannabinoids like CBD.

  • 1996: California voters approved a medical cannabis program, making that state the first in the U.S. to do so. Dozens of other states have followed suit since — 33 states and counting have since established medical cannabis programs.

  • 2001: Canada became the first country to federally legalize medical cannabis. 

Accessing medical cannabis in the U.S.

More than 70% of U.S. residents can access medical cannabis products through licensed dispensaries in 33 states, and many can purchase cannabis for any purpose in a growing number of states.

To purchase medical cannabis, you must first obtain a medical cannabis identification card by visiting a doctor and receiving a recommendation for a qualified condition under that state’s program. Some states allow any doctor to recommend the plant for any condition, while others have a strict set of guidelines that only issue cards to those with specific diagnoses. Visit your state’s medical cannabis program website for a precise list.

Some common conditions include:

Cannabis has also made its way into the pharmaceutical industry. The first pharmaceutical containing Cannabidiol (CBD), Epidiolex, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in June 2018. Epidiolex is an anticonvulsant prescribed to people with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. Additionally, synthetic cannabinoids in medications like Marinol, which is used to treat nausea and vomiting, have been approved by the FDA. 

Ethos and the future of medical cannabis research

Although federal regulations make studying cannabis a challenge, many states and research universities are stepping up to the plate. Pennsylvania is taking a leadership position by creating a unique business license called a Clinical Registrant License as part of the state’s medical marijuana program. This system requires dispensaries like Ethos to partner with and participate in ongoing medical cannabis research at one of Pennsylvania’s eight medical schools designated as an Academic Clinical Research Center.  

Ethos has partnered with the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. This groundbreaking partnership allows Ethos to work directly with physicians to better understand how cannabis fits into a complete healthcare program.

Medical cannabis: an ancient history and bright future

Diverse and geographically widespread societies have used cannabis for therapeutic purposes for millennia. Today, as the world shakes off decades of cannabis prohibition, we have experienced a worldwide medical cannabis revolution. As our understanding of cannabis and how it works improves, this plant can help even more people feel better, just as it helped our ancestors. 



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