The History of Hemp and Medicinal Cannabis

Hemp has a long and rich history. Humans have been cultivating hemp since almost 4000 BCE. 

In ancient China and elsewhere in the world, however, hemp was grown for food and had hundreds of other uses — so it was only natural for people to discover that other types of the Cannabis plant could be used medicinally. The spread of medicinal cannabis first started in China, then traveled throughout Asia into the Middle East and Africa. In ancient times, cannabis was used to alleviate pain and treat various conditions.

2737 B.C.E.  According to Chinese legend, Emperor Shen Neng was one of the first major leaders in the ancient world to officially prescribe marijuana tea to treat various illnesses — including gout, rheumatism, malaria, and poor memory.

2000-1400 B.C.E.  Compared to the Western world and even other parts of Asia like China and Japan, India had always remained closely tied to cannabis use — medicinally, religiously, recreationally, and spiritually.

1550 B.C.E.  Ancient Egypt’s Ebers Papyrus makes note of medical cannabis as a way to treat inflammation.

100 C.E.  In ancient China, the Shennong Bencaojing, a medical book, refers to cannabis as dama (da meaning great and ma meaning cannabis) and notes that the flowers, the seeds, and the leaves of the plant can be useful in medicine.

200 C.E.  Hua Tuo, a Chinese surgeon, is the first recorded physician to use cannabis as an anesthetic during surgery. During this time, Chinese physicians used the root, leaves, and oil of cannabis to treat blood clots, tapeworms, constipation and even hair loss.

Throughout the Middle Ages, cannabis was a widely popular drug in the Middle East. Because wine was forbidden in Islam, many Muslims turned to smoke hashish — the Arab word for marijuana — also known as “grass.” It was also used in traditional Arabic medicine.

515 C.E.  Cannabis is listed in the Vienna Dioscurides, an illuminated manuscript in Greek that provides a scientific encyclopedia of animals and plants.

100-1000s C.E.  During the Middle Ages in Europe, cannabis may not have been a religious or spiritual hallucinogen as it was in India, but it was still integrated in folk medicine.

1368-1644 C.E.  During the Ming dynasty a major section of the great pharmacopoeia of China, the Pen T’sao Kang Mu, was devoted exclusively to hemp seed. It was said to have a” calming” influence on the physiology and the hemp plant itself was placed in the category of” Superior” or higher types of medicine. This means that it is inherently non-toxic and can be taken for long periods of time or indefinitely.

1500s.  The Spanish brought cannabis to South America.

1533. Some scientists and physicians began studying the medical benefits of hemp.

Late 1700s.  At this point in time, some American medical journals were suggesting using hemp seeds and roots to treat various health problems, including skin inflammation and incontinence. 

Mid 1800s.  Paris Physician Jacques Moreau used cannabis to treat mental illnesses.

1838. William O’Shaughnessy, an Irish doctor in the British East India Company, touted medical marijuana’s benefits for rheumatism and nausea in England and America.

1906.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is created to prevent another morphine addiction crisis — as many people were becoming addicted to heroin, opium, and morphine, which weren’t properly regulated. The FDA mainly controlled opium and morphine during this time, and not so much marijuana, but its creation signaled a big shift in drug policy in America.

1914. Drug use, under the Harrison Act, is officially declared a crime.

1937. By now, 23 states have outlawed marijuana. The government also passes the Marihuana Tax Act, making the use of non-medical weed illegal. Cannabis was still used in various medical treatments, albeit in controlled forms.

1940. American organic chemist Roger Adams isolated the CBD compound.

1960.  Bulgarian-born Israeli chemist Raphael Mechoulam both isolated and described the chemical structure of CBD. Mechoulam, often called the godfather of cannabis research, was the first scientist to map the chemical structure of both cannabidiol and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.

1970. Marijuana was categorized as a Schedule I drug along with more dangerous ones, and was listed as having no accepted medical use. Despite the fact that some early American medical journals had begun listing the medical uses of cannabis, the government restricted any further research into it until more recently.

Mid-1970s. British Pharmacopoeia was referring to CBD tinctures for medical use.

1980s. Allyn Howlett, a scientist then at St. Louis University Medical School, used a radioactive THC equivalent to trace where cannabinoids ended up in the brain and discovered what she would later call CB1 receptors. They were subsequently found in the kidneys, lungs and liver, too. White blood cells of the immune system, the gut and the spleen also have another type of cannabinoid receptor, known as CB2.

As of April 2015. 23 states in the U.S. have legalized medical cannabis, but only people with certain qualifications can obtain it. That will usually entail children with epileptic conditions, or sometimes cancer patients who use cannabis to ease the side effects of chemotherapy or radiation. Some states allow patients with HIV/AIDs, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, or even Crohn’s disease to obtain medical cannabis.

While research into medical cannabis is still limited due to restrictions preventing scientists from obtaining the drug, recent studies have explored some therapeutic aspects of medical marijuana. For example, a 2015 study found that cannabis could be effective in treating schizophrenia. Research has also shown that it can help heal bones, stop certain seizures and even cure migraines. In one 2014 study suggested that cannabis might be effective in targeting certain brain tumors of associated with highly aggressive forms of cancer although far more research is needed to replicate those results.

December 2015.  FDA eased the regulatory requirements to allow researchers to conduct CBD trials.

2017.  In Germany doctors have been able to prescribe cannabis since 2017, and patients get a pharmaceutical-grade product, because a federal agency oversees the medical-marijuana industry.

2018.  US legislature legalized the production of industrial hemp in all 50 states, returning to its rightful role as a critically important crop, a position it held in the 17th and 18th centuries and at various times during the 20th century in America.