In preparation for our upcoming “Lunch and Learn” event tomorrow, we wanted to place 21st century applications of medicinal cannabis within a broader historical context.
According to Chinese legend, Emperor Shen Neng in approximately 2700 B.C. formally prescribed to his subjects marijuana tea to treat various illnesses such as gout, rheumatism, and malaria. Later, the ancient Egyptians began to smoke cannabis as a treatment for tumors. Despite its use for centuries around the world, medical marijuana was not introduced to Western medicine until the mid-1800s.
In the 1830s, an Irish doctor, William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, witnessed the use of medical marijuana during a trip to India. After studying its effects, he presented cannabis to physicians in England as a treatment for conditions including muscle spasms, rheumatism, and epilepsy. As reports of its effectiveness were published by notable medical journals, the popularity of medical marijuana spread across Europe and North America.
While cannabis was listed in the United States Pharmacopeia from 1851 until 1941, in 1937, the United States government passed the first federal law against its use. Dr. William C. Woodward, testifying on behalf of the American Medical Association, scorned the legislation. Woodward stated to Congress that, “The American Medical Association knows of no evidence that marijuana is a dangerous drug” and warned that a prohibition “loses sight of the fact that future investigation may show that there are substantial medical uses for cannabis.” Not only was Woodward unable to sway Congress to rethink their negative stance against medical marijuana, but lawmakers continued their harsh rebuked of this proven medicinal option for decades thereafter.
In 1976, the federal government made an uncharacteristic move and created the Investigational New Drug (IND) compassionate access research program to allow a small number of patients to receive up to nine pounds of marijuana from the government each year. Today, five patients still receive medical marijuana from the federal government even though such distribution is legal at the federal level.
In 1988, Francis L. Young, the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Chief Administrative Law Judge, ruled, “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known. It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for the DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance.” Again, despite objections to the contrary, the government declined to uphold this ruling based on a procedural technicality, and it stoically resists rescheduling marijuana to a level more appropriate to its true nature. To this day, marijuana remains classified in America as a Schedule I substance “indicating a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical value.”
Beginning in 1996, patients and advocates ignored the federal mandates against medical marijuana and they turned to their states for access. Voter initiatives passed in California and Arizona that allowed for legal use of marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation. Today, 28 states and Washington D.C. have passed similar laws stating that marijuana is a safe and effective medicine, and patients should have lawful access to its proven effects to alleviate pain, mitigate spasticity and nausea.
While the future of medical marijuana is still very much unclear within politics, what is abundantly obvious is that physicians around the world believe the mounting research pointing to the fact that the medicinal use of cannabis is very much a worthy consideration when assisting their patients with debilitating and chronic conditions.