A Quick History of Medical Marijuana Around the World

On Tuesday November 8th, seven states approved some form of marijuana legalization, making it an even 25 (plus Washington DC) that have written into law pro-marijuana legislation.  While it may seem as though medical marijuana is only just coming into vogue, a quick look at the history of medicine shows us that medical marijuana is in fact among our most ancient and most reliable treatments for all kinds of disease.  

So Who Used It First?
While there’s no consensus regarding who first prescribed medical marijuana, it would seem as though marijuana was first used in Ancient China a few thousand years BC.  In his book Hemp: American History Revisited, Richard Dietz writes, “The Chinese Emperor Fu Hsi (ca. 2900 BC), whom the Chinese credit with bringing civilization to China, seems to have made reference to Ma, the Chinese word for Cannabis.

According to Time Magazine, by 2737 BC Emperor Shen Neng of China, “was prescribing marijuana tea for the treatment of gout, rheumatism, malaria and poor memory” and from there it spread across Asia into the Middle East and Africa, where it was used for ceremonies and stress relief.  By about 500 BC marijuana had been used by Egyptians to combat glaucoma, in India to treat leprosy and in Greece to resolve ear-aches.  

How About In the Modern World?
While medical marijuana was an omni-present medical solution in the East, it wasn't until the late 1830’s that a doctor in the British Army, William O'Shaughnessy,  observed “folk uses” of cannabis in rural India.  O’Shaughnessy noted its efficacy in treating such diverse ailments as muscle spasms, rheumatism and the convulsions of tetanus.  O’Shaughnessy introduced medical cannabis to Victorian society upon his return to England in 1842.

Things brings us to the United States.  Perhaps inspired by the British, the “US Pharmacopia” officially listed medical marijuana as a viable treatment for a number of conditions in 1850, and according to “The Antique Cannabis Book”, by 1937 more than 2,000 medical cannabis products were produced by over 280 manufacturers.

1937 is an important year for medical marijuana because it’s also the year that prohibition began to take shape in the United States in the form of the “Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.”  Though this Act, theoretically intended to ensure appropriate taxation, it also lead to the first convictions in United States history for the possession and distribution, and the beginning of a slow prohibition that would ultimately reclassify and outlaw marijuana in the 1970’s. 

The Road To Legalization
Despites copious evidence of the medical benefits of medicinal marijuana, it wasn’t until 1996 that California became the first state to directly contradict the Controlled Substances Act and “legalize” medical marijuana by voting into law Proposition 215.  Proposition 215 was the first law in the country to remove state-level criminal penalties for the use, possession and cultivation of cannabis by patients who have received some form of permission from a doctor.

Two years later, three states, Alaska, Oregon and Washington, voted into law forms of decriminalization, and by “Y2K” eight states in the Union had passed marijuana-positive legislation and the tide officially began to turn.  Now, twenty years since California first voted to legalize (and 80 years since the Marijuana Tax Act), 50% of Americans have access to medical marijuana, one in five Americans have access to recreational marijuana and though the “plant prohibition” has not yet been fully reversed, we are well on our way to a more thoughtful approach to the use, distribution and regulation nationwide.