A History of Medical Marijuana and How it Has Changed Healthcare Over Time

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A Brief History

On December 16, 2012, the United States of America’s President Barack Obama signed a $1.1 trillion “cromnibus” spending bill into law.  This bill included the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment that prohibits the Justice Department from spending funds to interfere with the implementation of state medical cannabis laws.

Digging Deeper

Marijuana has been at the forefront of popular culture for a number of years now; however,  it was only a short time ago that a stigma persisted around the use of the famous plant to relieve pain. Fortunately, as marijuana continues to be legalized around the world for both recreational and medicinal use, it is important to know how its place in history has changed over time.

A photograph by User:O’Dea of a medical marijuana dispensary in Denver, Colorado

The cannabis plant’s first known use was in Ancient China. But medical marijuana actually has a long and storied history of helping with a variety of different ailments. As legislation continues to change and more research is done into the cannabis plant, this wonder substance is likely to carve out a more significant place in the marketplace.

The projected growth of the cannabis product CBD oil was expected to be upward of 700% by 2020, according to a recent study in the Hemp Business Journal. As one of the most popular products for medicinal marijuana use, it is no surprise that the plant is experiencing a boom in the healthcare sector. Whether cannabis enthusiasts are interested in trying CBD oil or the purple kush strain, there are options out there for every beginner.

The Humble Beginnings of Hemp

The Chinese character for hemp (麻 or má) depicts two plants under a shelter. Cannabis cultivation dates back at least 3000 years in Taiwan.

Familiarity with the cannabis plant and its many uses exists all over the world nowadays. But, there was once a time around 3000 B.C. when it was only commonplace in Asia. It’s believed that Emperor Shen Neng was one of the first to suggest cannabis as a means of dealing with illness. The powerful green plant was commonly mixed in with green tea and was used for everything from treating malaria to helping with memory. Around 2000 B.C., cannabis began to be added to a drink known as bhang in India. Consisting of cannabis paste, milk and ghee, this drink was believed to make people happy and improve their mental well being. While little was known at the time about its true abilities, the beginnings of medicinal marijuana had begun.

The Middle Ages & Marijuana

Cannabis sativa from Vienna Dioscurides, AD 512

Cannabis was not integrated into use as a medicine in Europe or the Middle East in the middle ages. But around 500 B.C. its capabilities as a substance began to spread farther afield from Asia and India. Alcohol may not have been allowed in the religion of Islam; however, Muslims were allowed to smoke marijuana and it was used as a means of rest and rehabilitation. At the same time, there were no taboos related to the use of marijuana in Europe. It was used to treat a variety of ailments including coughs, jaundice and even tumour; however, the stigma associated with marijuana use began to appear around this time. While it was not without its benefits, doctors warned about the problems associated with excessive use of the substance.

Marijuana in Modern Times 

Cannabis as illustrated in Köhler’s Book of Medicinal Plants, 1897

In the 1500s, cannabis became a popular substance in South America due to Spanish influence. It began to gain prominence amongst practitioners of medicine in the United States in the 18th century. It was believed that it could assist in treating a variety of ailments including inflammation and nausea; however, marijuana was actually brought into the country by Mexicans who were immigrating to the United States. While products like the Black Diamond cannabis strain have become popular, the plant became associated with a criminal element. In 1970, it was classified as a Schedule 1 drug, which meant that it had no known medical uses and was considered addictive. It is a stigma that still exists today even with the rise of medicinal marijuana.

The Future of Marijuana

An example of CBD-infused cold brew coffee & tea on a grocery store shelf.

The history of marijuana as medicine has included a number of setbacks in the 21st century. Fortunately, things are set to shift in the coming years. While cannabis research is limited due to its classification as an addictive Schedule 1 drug, there’s hope on the horizon! Many available studies are revealing a wide variety of uses for cannabis. In addition to helping with inflammation and body pain ailments, there are many studies that seem to indicate this is only the tip of the iceberg. It is believed that more scientific research will yield discoveries in the prevention of diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s. Luckily, with substances like CBD oil and medical marijuana gaining mass market appeal, we’ll have more answers down the road.

Marijuana and the cannabis plant may have only become buzzwords in recent years; however, the presence of marijuana in helping to cure common ailments dates back to the time of Ancient China. Luckily, as the rules change for marijuana there will be even more research into the potential of this well-known plant! Whether you want to try out cannabis at your local dispensary or grow your own autoflowering seeds, there are many options. While it s hard to say what its capability is now, there is hope that the cannabis plant might be one of limitless potential.

Question for students: Should medical marijuana be legal?  Please let us know in the comments to this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Allen, Jake.  Medical Marijuana: The History and Health Benefits of Marijuana on Anxiety, Cancer, Epilepsy, and More.  Independently published, 2017.

Medical Marijuana: The History and Health Benefits of Marijuana on Anxiety, Cancer, Epilepsy, and More (Paperback)


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Mikuriya, Tod H.  Marijuana: Medical Papers, 1839-1972 (Cannabis: Collected Clinical Papers).  Pelican Pond Publishing, 2007.

Marijuana: Medical Papers, 1839-1972 (Cannabis: Collected Clinical Papers) (Paperback)


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The featured image in this article, illustrating various forms of medicinal cannabis, was donated to Wikimedia by BruceBlaus of Blausen Medical for “Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014“, WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2), DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010ISSN 2002-4436.  Please visit their website to see more medical illustrations and animations.  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.  This work is free and may be used by anyone for any purpose.  If you wish to use this content, you do not need to request permission as long as you follow any licensing requirements mentioned on this page.  Wikimedia has received an e-mail confirming that the copyright holder has approved publication under the terms mentioned on this page.  This correspondence has been reviewed by an OTRS member and stored in our permission archive. T he correspondence is available to trusted volunteers as ticket #2013061010006654.  If you have questions about the archived correspondence, please use the OTRS noticeboard.  Ticket link: https://ticket.wikimedia.org/otrs/index.pl?Action=AgentTicketZoom&TicketNumber=2013061010006654

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About Author

Nancy is a blogger who loves to write especially in the Cannabis vertical. She has written many informative blogs in other verticals too.