Many civilizations throughout history have had a powerful dependence on hemp, mankind’s most durable fiber resource. While modern-day proponents of industrial hemp often distance these uses of the plant from the drug called marijuana, the two terms—hemp and marijuana—apply to different uses of the same plant species. A history of marijuana as medicine would be incomplete without some reference to the multitude of benefits provided by this extraordinary weed.
UNtil 2008, the earliest known evidence of marijuana in human hands dated back approximately 10,000 years to a prehistoric village that was discovered in Taiwan in 1972. Pottery shards unearthed there bore the distinct impression of hemp cord, conclusively proving that marijuana has been in use since the Stone Age. However, in 2008, experts are about to publish findings on a dig in Central Asia that features evidence of the use of cannabis by a prehistoric medicine man some 27,000 years ago.
Known in Chinese languages as Ma, this hardy, annual herb is arguably the “mother” of agricultural civilization. Ma provided to be a renewable food source and a durable textile fiber for the manufacture of rope and fabric, setting agro-industrial China far ahead of hunter-gatherer types in other parts of the world. Besides its many textile and medicinal uses, marijuana yields seeds rich in B vitamins, protein, and amino acids, which have served as China’s second or third most important agricultural food source for thousands of years. While evidence of marijuana in use as a medicine has been found in Egyptian ruins dated as early as the 16th century BC, and digs at ancient Hebrew sites have unearthed evidence of medical marijuana as an aid to childbirth long before the time of Christ, the many uses of Ma have proved to be an invaluable resource in the continuous survival of Chinese culture from its distant origins to the present day.
The earliest known material identified as hemp fabric was found in an ancient burial site from the Chou Dynasty (1122-1249 BC), confirming numerous historical references to the importance of hemp in early China. In the book Rite of Rites (circa 200 BC), mourners were instructed to wear hemp fabric out of respect for the dead, a tradition which survives to this day.
Perhaps most importantly, the Chinese invention of hemp paper around 200 BC revolutionized record-keeping processes fundamental to orderly government. Although the secret was kept from the rest of the world for 900 years, hemp papermaking eventually became indispensable to the rapid development of all civilizations throughout the world. Thousands of years before hemp paper became a central fixture of European civilizations, the industrial and medical uses of Ma were deeply rooted in China, the country historically known as “the land of mulberry and hemp.”
In ancient China, medicine men used hemp stalks carved with ornate snake figures as magical amulets to exorcise demons believed to be the cause of physical illness. These healers attempted to cure all sorts of diseases by beating the headboards of their patients’ beds with magical hemp stalks while reciting spells and incantations. Japanese Shinto priests employed a similar ceremony using a short wand bound with undyed hemp fibers. The purity of white hemp was thought to exorcise evil demons. While contemporary scientists dismiss such accounts as ignorant superstitions, a more thoughtful observer might ponder the origins of such long-lived legends.
Shen-Nung, a Chinese emperor who ruled around 2800 BC, is credited with introducing medicines to the Chinese people. Like all mythical figures, he is recalled through time in both fact and fantasy. It is said that Shen-Nung had a transparent abdomen and intentionally ingested as many as 70 different plants per day so that he could watch their effects and discover their various qualities. Shen-Nung identified hundreds of different medicines, which are compiled in the world’s oldest medical text, the Pen Ts’ao. For that he was deified and is still acclaimed as the father of traditional Chinese medicine. Prior to the reorganization of China as a communist country, medicinal drug retailers offered periodic discounts in honor of Shen-Nung.
According to the Pen Ts’ao, ma-fen, the flowers of the female marijuana plant, contain the greatest amount of yin energy: yin being the receptive female attribute that is, in traditional Chinese philosophy and medicine, dynamically linked with yang, the creative male element. Ma-fen was prescribed in cases of a loss of yin, such as in menstrual fatigue, rheumatism, malaria, beri-beri, constipation, and absentmindedness. The Pen Ts’ao warned that eating too many Ma seeds could cause one to see demons, but that, taken over a long period of time, marijuana seeds could enable one to communicate with spirits. Shen-Nung also instructed the Chinese people in the cultivation of hemp for clothing and other textile uses, an agricultural art still practiced in rural areas of China.
In the first century AD, Taoist alchemists inhaled the smoke of burning hemp seeds in order to cause visions, which were valued as a means of achieving immortality. Marijuana was considered a superior elixir that rejuvenated the mind and body. In more pragmatic disciplines, traditional Chinese physicians have used Ma for a wide variety of medical conditions. Hua T’o, a famous surgeon of the second century AD, performed complicated surgery using ma-yo, an anesthetic made from hemp resin and wine. When acupuncture and medicines failed to effect a cure, Hua T’o performed complex surgery, including amputations and organ graftings tied with sutures. With the use of ma-yo, these surgeries were reportedly painless. In the tenth century AD, Chinese physicians reported that ma-yo was useful in the treatment of waste diseases and injuries. Ma treatments were used to clear blood and cool fevers, as well as to cure rheumatism and to ease childbirth.
In Western civilizations, as in China, the durable material crafted from tough hemp stalks has been of immeasurable significance throughout history. The ancient Greeks called in kannabis. Greek sailors traded kannabis across the Aegean Sea as early as the sixth century BC, according to written records on hemp trade from that era. Twentieth-century archeologists found hemp fiber bundles in the cargo hold of a Carthaginian trade ship that had sunk near Sicily around 300 BC. In 450 BC, Herodotus, the great Greek historian, wrote of the fine quality of hemp clothing produced by the Greek-speaking Thracians.
Four hundred years later, Plutarch wrote that the Thracians made a habit of throwing the tops of the kannabis plant onto a fire, thereby becoming intoxicated by the smoke. It was a custom unfamiliar to the wine-loving children of Zeus. A minor reference to the use of kannabis as a remedy for backache is found in Greek literature from about 400 BC. That is the only known reference to the medical use of marijuana in ancient Greece, although it is known that both Arabic and Hebrew medical practices did use kannabis medications during that same period.
In 70 AD, a Greek physician named Discordes in the employ of conquering Roman legions collected a wealth of information on medicinal plants. Discordes’ text, entitled Materia Medica, contained the fruits of his world travels with the descriptions, local names, natural habitats, and indications for treatment of various symptoms. Among those 600 plants, Discordes identified Cannabis sativa L. (from the Greek kannabis) as being useful in manufacturing rope and as producing seeds whose juice was effective for treating earaches and for diminishing sexual desire. Discordes’ Materia Medica was hugely successful, translated into every language of the known world, and remained an indispensable reference manual of Western medicine for at least 1500 years.
The English word canvas is derived from the word cannabis, an etymological indication of the supreme importance of hemp fiber in European seafaring technology. Clearly, the colonial expansion of European empires into remote parts of the world could not have occurred without the development of cannabis-based technologies. In 1492, for example, each one of Columbus’ transatlantic vessels carried more than 80 tons of hemp rigging and sails, the product of untold thousands of man-hours. Many stately fortunes were built on the toil of peasants in tall fields of hemp, which eventually became the most important industrial crop in most emerging countries. At the same time, European knowledge of medical cannabis was limited to the short references of Discordes and various unrecorded folk remedies throughout medieval times.
As Western civilization moved from the Dark Ages into the Renaissance period, the developing medical since uncovered many substantial facts, including a remarkable number of benefits ascribed to medical marijuana. In 1621, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton suggested that cannabis might be useful for treating depression. In 1982, The New London Dispensatory briefly covered the use of cannabis seeds to cure coughs and jaundice. The New English Dispensatory of 1794 reported an increased understanding of the medicinal uses of the cannabis plant, including the treatment of coughs, venereal disease, and urinary incontinence. The section on cannabis notes that, “Although the seeds only have hitherto been principally in use, yet other parts of the plant seem to be more active, and may be considered as deserving more attention.” In 1814, Nicholas Culpepper published his Complete Herbal, which listed all of the known medicinal uses of cannabis. He included all of the applications previously published and a few new ones, such as easing colic, allaying humors of the bowels, staying troublesome bleeding, reducing inflammation of the head, and reducing pains on the hips and joints. Culpepper also recommended cannabis as an additive to salves in the treatment of burns. There is no historical evidence that European physicians were aware of any psychoactive effects associated with cannabis use until the exploration of India broadened European understanding.
In 1753, a Swedish botanist named Carl Lineaus compiled the most complete reference manual of botanical classifications to date, entitled Species Planetarium. Linaeus adopted Discordes’ classification of Cannabis sativa, but almost immediately some botanists argued that the newly studied Indian cannabis plant was distinctly different from the well-known European Cannabis sativa grown for industrial and medical uses. In 1783, a French biologist named Jean Lamarck examined the two types in his compendium entitled Encyclopedia. Lamarck noted that the species Cannabis sativa commonly grown for fiber and textile uses was characterized by a height of twelve to sixteen feet, long stalks, sparse foliage, and slender leaves. Cannabis native to India, on the other hand, was typically four to five feet tall at maturity and was densely foliated with bushy clusters of comparatively broad leaves. Lamarck dubbed the second species Cannabis indica in deference to its country of origin.
There are literally hundreds of subspecies of cannabis, and botanists continue to argue over exact scientific classifications, but most experts concur that there are at least two distinctly different types comprising all of the strains currently in existence. In 1913, Lyster Dewey, botanist and hemp expert from the United States Department of Agriculture, reported in the USDA Yearbook that Cannabis indica was, “… different in general appearance from any of the numerous forms frown by this department from seed obtained in nearly all countries where hemp is cultivated.”
Modern hybridization has altered the natural inclinations of the cannabis plant as growers have sought to promote particular traits, blurring distinction between the two primary species. However, those natural tendencies remain at least partially visible. Typically, the tall stalks of Cannabis sativa are cultivated for fiber and seed industries, while the short Cannabis indica bushes are cultivated for the medicinal and psychoactive properties of their flowers. Cannabis sativa grown for industrial uses usually contains only minor amounts of psychoactive compounds. Proper cultivation can produce higher levels of therapeutic compounds in some types of Cannabis sativa. The more potent Cannabis indica varieties, on the other hand, are not suitable for industrial fiber production due to the shortness of their bushy stalks. While this contrast distinguishes the natural tendencies of the two primary varieties, many medicinal growers have discovered that the most potent strains combine the best traits of both.
Apparently originating in China, cannabis presumably spread west across Asia, Asia Minor, and the Mediterranean, and was adopted by many early cultures. From there, cannabis eventually spread to nearly all civilizations around the globe, according to Western historians. Traditional Hindu teachings, however, tell an entirely different story. The origins of what Europeans called Cannabis indica are recorded in the Vedas, India’s four most sacred books. Written approximately 4,000 years ago, the Vedas tell the great legends of conquest, struggle, and spiritual development that continue to shape every facet of traditional Hindu life. Among many other colorful myths, the Vedas tell of Lord Shiva, one of three primary Hindu gods, refreshed in the heat of the day by eating leaves of the marijuana plant. Lord Shiva adopted it as his favorite food; hence he is honored with the title Lord of Bhang.
Bhang is a traditional Indian beverage made of cannabis mixed with various herbs and spices, which has been popular in India for ages. Bhang is a less powerful preparation than Ganja, which is prepared from flowering plants for smoking and eating. Charas, more potent than either Bhang or Ganja, consists of cannabis flower tops harvested at full bloom. Dense with sticky resin, Charas is nearly as potent as the concentrated cannabis resin preparations called hashish. For thousands of years, these intoxicating marijuana preparations have permeated every important aspect of traditional Indian life, from ritualistic worship to mundane survival. Warriors preparing for battle, couples about to wed, and pious Hindus on virtually every important occasion have celebrated life by invoking Lord Shiva with the sacred herb.
The fourth of the Vedas, the Athavaveda, which is translated as The Science of Charms, calls Bhang one of the “five kingdoms of herbs… which releases us from anxiety.” While this idea may appear to echo Western understandings, South Asian wisdom is not bound by the limits of Newtonian logic. One Hindu myth tells of the time before creation when the gods churned the great cosmic mountain for the nectar of immortality. It is said that marijuana plants sprouted wherever the precious drops of nectar touched the earth. Another mystical sutra reports that Siddhartha, he who became known as Buddha, “the enlightened one,” lived on nothing but a single cannabis seed per day for six years prior to his spiritual awakening. While a literal interpretation is not possible, these ancient myths do remind us that both Hindus and Tantric Buddhists in Northern India, Tibet, and Nepal have included cannabis as an essential sacrament in profound religious rituals for untold millennia.
Tradional Indian medicine has long used a multitude of cannabis preparations for the treatment of such illnesses as fever, dysentery, susntroke, and leprocy. Cannabis is said to clean phlegm, quicken digestion, sharpen the intellect, increase the body’s alertness, and act as an elixir vitae. Hindu medicine practice—unlike Western science—also addresses spiritual awareness. It is said that Ganja gives delight to Shiva, the king of gods, who is always pleased to receive offerings. This connection between Lord Shiva and Ganja is considered invaluable to maintaining one’s physical health and psychological equilibrium. According to the Rajvallabha, a 17th century Hindu text, “This desire-fulfilling drug was believed to have been obtained by men on Earth or the welfare of all people. To those who use it regularly, it begets joy and diminishes sorrow.”
Indian culture reveres the marijuana plant as a sacrament and a blessing. Through it one may partake cosmic forces and unite with the gods. Although Western societies typically reject subjective spiritual experiences, the importance of these beliefs in Indian culture cannot be discounted. In 1893, after exhaustive study of cannabis use in their South Asian colony, the British government released the largest single study of cannabis use to date in the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report. Years of research produced the official determination that the use of hemp drugs was not harmful to the Indians, and that it would be a grievous error to attempt to separate that culture from the holy drug known to the West as Cannabis indica. In 1986, however, the Single Convention of Drugs and Narcotic Substances outlawed cannabis throughout the world. The current ban includes African, Asian, Middle Eastern, and South American countries whose history of cannabis use was also of great social and cultural significance long before the arrival of hemp-heavy warships from far away lands.
During the early days of the American colonies, industrial hemp products became indispensable to world trade. Hemp was a government-mandated crop, yet the many medical uses of the marijuana plant remained largely unknown in both the New and Old World. However, once Westerners discovered the range cannabis therapies found in traditional Indian medicine, the effects of Cannabis indica on European and American medical practices was swift and strong.
In the 19th century, after extensive study of the Indian medical literature, and after discussing cannabis with many Indian scholars, the British East India Company surgeon William B. O’Shoughnessy began testing Cannabis indica on animals and patients, and also on himself. O’Shoughnessy introduced many new medicinal uses of cannabis to Europe and America in his 1839 paper titled On the Preparation of the Indian Hemp or Gunja. O’Shoughnessy found that cannabis relieved rheumatism, convulsions, and muscle spasms of tetanus and rabies. That original medical research remains a historical record calling for further scrutiny in our current postindustrial era.
Following O’Shaughnessy’s work, the late 1800s saw a rapid increase of cannabis therapies in Western medical practice. In 1840, French physician Louis Aubert-Roche published a book on the use of hashish to treat symptoms of the plaugue and typhoid fever. In 1854, the United States Dispensatory listed many uses of cannabis extracts, recommending cannabis preparations for cases of neuralgia, gout, tetanus, hydrophobia, cholera, convulsions, spasticity, hysteria, depression, insanity, and uterine hemorrhage, and also for promoting relaxed contractions during delivery.
In 1890, Sir John Russell Reynolds, personal physician to Queen Victoria, reported that cannabis use was useful for treatment of dysmenorrhea (painful menstration), migraine, neuralgia, convulsions, and insomnia. Reynolds called cannabis “by far the most useful of drugs” in treating “painful maladies.” It is unknown whether Reynolds or other Western physicians knew of the corroborating recommendations written by China’s Shen Nung more than two thousand years ago.
Between 1840 and 1890 at least 100 medical papers were published on the use of cannabis for the treatment of loss of appetite, insomnia, migraine headache, pain, involuntary twitching, excessive coughing, and withdrawal in cases of opiates or alcohol addiction. Sir William Osler, known as the “father of modern medicine,” proclaimed cannabis to be the best treatment for migraine in his authoritative medical textbook, written in 1915. At that time, there were at least 30 different cannabis preparations made by leading pharmaceutical companies available in America, even though the hypodermic injection of morphine, along with the use of aspirin and other medicines, had already begun to replace traditional herbal medications.
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other founding fathers had repeatedly extolled the many virtues of hemp, but their words were quickly discounted as the Industrial Revolution radically reinvented American values. Domestic policies driven by capitalistic motives and a marked prejudice against people of color, the primary users of cannabis as a “recreational” drug, led to the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, a bill that effectively outlawed all uses of hemp by the imposition of a cost prohibitive tax.
During the closed congressional hearings of 1937, the American Medical Association adamantly objected to the prohibition of medical marijuana. The testimony of the Associaton’s legislative councel, Dr. William C. Woodward, in response to the one-sided testimony of career-minded law enforcers, heatedly criticized the proceedings and their determined intent. He told the legislators:
In all that you have heard here thus far, no mention has been made of any excessive use of the drug by any doctor, or its excessive distribution by any pharmacist. And yet the burden of this bill is placed heavily upon the doctors and pharmacists of the country, and may I say very heavily—most heavily possibly of all—on farmers of the country.
We cannot understand yet, Mr. Chairman, why this bill should have been prepared in secret for two years, without any initiative, even to the profession that it was being prepared. No medical man would identify this bill with a medicine until he read it through, because marijuana is not a drug… simply a name given to cannabis.
Misrepresenting a standard medication that has been used in medical practice for nearly a century by incorporating a Mexican slang word, marihuana, the 1937 Tax Act was a classic example of what social critic Noam Chomsky calls “manufacturing consent.” The committee was unabashed in its mockery of the democratic process. For his directness and honesty, Dr. Woodward was rewarded with the following admonition:
You are not cooperative in this. If you want to advise us on legislation you ought to come here with some constructive proposals rather than criticisms, rather than trying to throw obstacles in the way of something the Federal government is trying to do.
Regardless of the interests of the American Medical Association and numerous pharmaceutical companies such as Parke-Davis and Ely Lilly, and with no consideration of various hemp fiber industries, including the Ford Corporation and thousands of American farmers, the United States government effectively banned cannabis use for all purposes. The move was apparently based solely on the lies of certain federal law enforcers (Anslinger?) who were backed by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst stirred hysteria in the country about an evil drug known as “the weed with roots in hell.” Having little or no experience with the mysterious marihuana plant, most Americans were easily duped by Hearst’s blatant fabrications. Few were even aware of the great loss to medical science. In retrospect, it is clear that the outrageous stories of murder and mayhem widely publicized throughout the country were intended to destroy the hemp industry because it posed a threat to tree-paper industrialists Hearst and synthetic-fiber industrialist Dupont, among others. Just as the vast fortunes of European courts were built on the backs of hemp farmers, so were modern industrial fortunes built on their destruction. Not to be outdone by the private sector, politicians and law enforcers secured a whole new frontier for themselves by banning one of humanity’s most precious medicinal herbs.
Cannabis remained legally prescribable until 1942, but its medical use had dwindled by that time because of the exorbitant tax on marihuana. During those years, Reefer Madness propoganda helped erase America’s cultural memory of hemp, the material on which both the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were originally written. During World War II, the industrial uses of hemp fiber were hugely promoted by the US government to outfit American armies overseas, but at the close of the war, the patriotic “Hemp for Victory” slogan became yet another bit of hemp trivia quietly deleted from America’s official history. Although America’s industrial hero, Henry Ford, had created a car made of hemp that was harder than steel, his great ingenuity was quickly forgotten, as was our age-old reliance on one of nature’s greatest medicines.
Scientific study of cannabis and its many medical applications was minimal for several decades. While there were over 2,500 papers on opiate drugs published between 1938 and 1965, there were only 175 studies of cannabis during the same period. Enforced ignorance prevailed until the cultural revolution of the 1960s focused a new light on the subject.
The Renaissance of Cannabis Consciousness
The popularity of marijuana among dissenting American youths during the 1960s triggered a resurgence of scientific research, but federal mandates soon made unbiased study nearly impossible. While President Kennedy purportedly used cannabis in the White House to relieve severe back pain, subsequent Presidents radically escalated US “drug war” policies. Richard Nixon promised to get tough on drugs during his presidential campaign, and he kept that promise almost immediately upon assuming office. He appointed the Shafer Commission to study the “marijuana problem,” but the President’s commission determined that the major problems associated with marijuana use were largely the result of its prohibition. Discovering that the report backed decriminalization, Nixon rejected his commission’s recommendations before they were published. When framed by law enforcers, high-profile Harvard professor and professional dropout Timothy Leary successfully challenged the faulty logic of the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. Nixon quickly rewrote the nation’s drug laws, and Leary went to prison. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug with “no medical value and a high potential for abuse,” and thus created severe obstacles to objective research.
For three decades, countless politicians relied on drug war rhetoric to maintain their positions. President Jimmy Carter was the only prominent US policy maker to even consider revisiting the nation’s marijuana laws, and even that consideration was short lived. Enforcing cannabis prohibition has cost inestimable billions of US tax dollars. Millions of American citizens have suffered physical, mental, economic, and social hardship resulting from the political ambitions of politicians and law enforcement officials. In 1997, the editor-in-chief of the widely respected New England Journal of Medicine coined the term “federal foolishness” in criticizing the government’s persecution of 65 million Americans.
Among the millions of confessed criminals, both President Bill Clinton and his one-time nemesis Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich have admitted to using cannabis for recreational purposes. Nonetheless, both the Republican and Democratic parties proposed defending the country against its fourth most popular drug, jailing over a half million people per year. For American doctors and their patients, conversations regarding marijuana were strictly limited by the legal definition of marijuana as a substance of abuse. But, regardless of harsh penalties, social stigma, and enforced ignorance, popular interest in the “forbidden medicine” has dramatically increased. At the dawn of the new millennium, ancient wisdom has become modern folklore.
In the age of AIDS and cancer chemotherapy, cannabis has assumed a powerful stature in public opinion. In July of 1998, a stunning 96% of respondents supported the medical use of marijuana, according to a CNN news poll headlined, “Weed Wars: A Smoldering Debate Enters the Mainstream.” Also in 1998, the Microsoft News Broadcasting Service poll showed 90% public acceptance of medical marijuana. While CBS reported only 65% approval in 1997, 20% of those polled thought medical marijuana should be legalized even if research failed to confirm anecdotal reports. The American Civil Liberties Union poll of 1996 found that 79% of Americans thought it would be a “good idea” to allow doctors to prescribe cannabis, and 25% of those polled reported knowing a friend or relative who had used marijuana for medical purposes. Those national polls all preceded the Institute of Medicine (IOM) report, Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base, in 1999 (see appendix). Following release of that landmark federal review, a Gallop poll found that 73% of the American people support “making marijuana available for doctors to prescribe in order to reduce pain and suffering.”
Tens of thousands of seriously ill Americans are now physician-certified users of medical marijuana. Many states have legalized the use of marijuana when recommended by a physician, and at least 20 other states have contemplated similar referenda. But the popular movement to legalize medical marijuana is severely crippled by hypocritical “federal foolishness.” Although a mountain of overwhelming evidence supports the safety and utility of medical marijuana, it remains a Schedule I substance, along with LSD, PCP, methamphetamines, heroin, and other dangerous drugs. Regardless of the will of the people, as expressed in numerous statewide ballot initiatives, federal law is enforced throughout the nation.
Marinol, an oral pharmaceutical medication containing the most prominent cannabinoid, delta-9 tetrahydrocannibinol (THC), is legally available by prescription for appetite stimulation in treating anorexic AIDS patients, and for the control of nausea in cancer chemotherapy. And the use of Marinol in cancer treatment and in the growing AIDS crisis has helped pave the way for recognition of marijuana in other fields of medical practice.
But challenges to intelligent discussion remain daunting. Cannabis cooperatives distribute the natural medication to qualified patients in many North American cities, defiant of federal court orders. Even in states that have enacted laws protecting qualified patients from prosecution, law enforcement authorities, traditional enemies of “demon weed,” have no protocol covering the growing presence of medical cannabis—a hydra of multiplying complications. At stake in this multifaceted contest are the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: in particular, patients’ rights, physicians’ rights of free speech, the rights of the disabled, and the sovereign rights of individual states that have approved the use of medical marijuana in violation of federal law. Landmark legal cases are headlined while top-level drug warriors terrorize the public with irrational and inhuman policies. Caught in the crossfire are an increasing number of seriously ill patients who commit felonies on a daily basis as a matter of personal survival.
It is now common knowledge that marijuana has a variety of medical applications. Even the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has admitted that the evidence for marijuana as medicine is incontrovertible, after decades of staunch denial. Scientific research on cannabis remains incomplete, yet a great body of information may be gathered from diverse sources. In 1993, Peter Nelson of Australia’s Advisory Committee on Illicit Drugs conducted a review of the scientific literature. He discovered that at least 4,000 papers, monographs, and books had been published on the medical, psychological, and social aspects of cannabis use since the 1960s. American health authority Andrew Weil has suggested that the available data on cannabis might fill several tractor-trailer containers. In fact, according to Harvard psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon, we now know more about cannabis use than about the majority of prescription drugs in common use.
The Compassionate Investigational New Drug program began distributing government-grown marijuana to a handful of medical marijuana patients in 1978. As of this writing, the program still supplies 300 marijuana cigarettes per month to eight surviving patients. In 1992, the program stopped accepting new applications, just as it was about to be inundated by thousands of applicants with AIDS.
Four years later, medical marijuana was legalized in California and Arizona. Because of the medical marijuana initiatives approved in these two states, President Clinton allocated one million dollars to review the existing research. As a result, in 1999, the most respected medical body in the United States, the Institute of Medicine, published Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base, in which the authors reported, “The accumulated scientific data indicate a potential therapeutic value for cannabinoid drugs, particularly for pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation.” The American government had finally granted official recognition of this natural medicinal resource. However, to understate the obvious, there are a number of potential benefits not listed in the Institute of Medicine’s report.
Isolation of some of the 61 active compounds found in cannabis resin, known as cannabinoids, has enabled many studies to be done without the use of the natural material, which still remains almost impossible to obtain for legitimate studies. Immediately following the IOM’s 1999 report, the White House promised to support independent research on medical marijuana, yet only one such study was allowed. Volunteer subjects supplying their own marijuana have provided an additional resource for modern research, and studies done in countries more tolerant of cannabis use offer another source of reliable information. Largely suppressed in the United States, an increasing number of scientific reports provide strong evidence of an amazing number of potential medical uses.