Medicinal Cannabis: Where We’ve Been and Where We Stand Today
With so much in the news regarding medicinal marijuana, and with individual state laws evolving at a rapid pace, I thought this would be a good time to review the history, politics and science related to this fascinating plant. First, a brief disclaimer: this piece is neither an endorsement nor a denunciation of the recreational use of marijuana. I leave that to the reader. But even as societal standards evolve, the scientific evidence in support of some of the medicinal effects of cannabis is growing, so we owe it to ourselves to better understand its potential benefits (and risks). Volumes have been written on the topic…but I’ve attempted to distill the essential points down in this two-part series.
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Part One: The Plant and its History
Cannabis, the plant genus from which marijuana and industrial hemp species are derived, is considered to be one of the earliest plants to be cultivated by humans, and examples of its uses through ancient and modern history abound. Originally indigenous to Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, industrial use of the fibrous components of the hemp strain (e.g. for rope, paper and fabric) dates back to the Neolithic Age. The psychoactive properties of the Marijuana strains of cannabis (Sativa and Indica species) were known to the ancient Assyrians as early as the 25th century BC, and since that time, its use for medicinal purposes and in ritual practices spread through ancient cultures across Eurasia. It has been one of the 50 essential herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine for almost 5,000 years, has been found in ancient Eurasian tombs dating back 2,500 years, is believed to have been used by the ancient Hebrews as an ingredient in holy anointing oils, and is found in over 80 traditional Ayurvedic medicine formulas. Over the centuries, Cannabis made its way to Arab and African nations and during the16th century, to the Western world, most likely via the Spaniards. Hemp is known to have been used in the production of textiles in the 1600s by Powhatan Native Americans, and by 1619, hemp became a primary cultivar of English settlers in Virginia. At the time of Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1798 invasion of Egypt, where alcohol was forbidden, his troops became happily accustomed to the soothing effects of hashish (derived from marijuana resin). The medicinal properties of cannabis were appreciated by European physicians as early as the 1830s, and in 1850, it was added to the U.S. Pharmacopoeia’s list of approved treatments. At the turn of the century, U.S. pharmaceutical companies such as Eli Lilly, Squibb and Parke-Davis produced cannabis-containing tinctures meant to treat such conditions as migraine headaches, seizures, muscle spasms and pain. Cannabis was also used in veterinary medications.
The laws and politics
In the early 19th century, Americans grew more concerned about the dangerous properties of many commonly-used intoxicants such as alcohol, chloroform, morphine and cocaine, and more uncomfortable with the use of intoxicating substances in general. The Pure Food and Drug Act (which regulated and restricted the use of many of these substances, including cannabis) was passed in 1906. Shortly thereafter, the temperance movement gained traction and in 1919, the 18th Amendment to the U.S Constitution (prohibiting the manufacture, sale or transportation of alcohol) was ratified.
Around this same time period, cannabis became increasingly politicized. William Randolph Hearst is seen as having meaningfully influenced our nation’s cannabis policies on multiple fronts. He is believed to have held Mexican-Americans in great contempt, possibly due to the loss of hundreds of thousands of acres of his timberland to Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution. At a time when anti-immigration sentiment was rising, Hearst’s newspapers portrayed Mexicans as shiftless, dangerous, marijuana-abusing usurpers of American jobs. Additionally, technology had been evolving in a way that enabled hemp to be used to mass produce many products, including paper, clothing, paints and rope. It was feared that this could negatively impact the value of timberland (owned by Hearst), and the value of paints and artificial fibers such as nylon (produced by the DuPont Corporation), and it is believed that these captains of industry exploited their political connections—and enduring racial differences—as a means of suppressing the cannabis industry. As published by Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner in 1923:
“By the tons, it is coming into this country—the deadly, dreadful poison that racks and tears not only the body but the very heart and soul of every human being who once becomes a slave to it in any of its cruel and devastating forms…marihuana is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse of horrid specters. Hasheesh makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man who ever laughed at the idea that any habit could ever get him.”
And as anti-Mexican sentiment lingered, a 1935 Los Angeles Times article included the following:
“When a Mexican of the lower class runs amuck, tries to snip off the ears of his wife with a carving knife, cut the throat of his compadre, and it takes six to eight burly American policemen to get him to jail- when those things happen, I say it is as clear as day that the little chap, who otherwise, would be no stronger than a cat, has been smoking marihuana.”
Interestingly, America revised its position on hemp during World War II, as it proved to be very useful in the production of military uniforms and other materials. In fact, a short film entitled Hemp for Victory endorsed the plant as a strategic necessity. Over the ensuing decades, however, anti-cannabis sentiment waxed and waned. Several United Nations conventions between the 1960s and 1980s imposed various restrictions on the production and supply of cannabis, and the U.S “war on drugs” led to further foreign policy pressure on nations producing or trafficking cannabis. Policies at home and abroad since that time have continued to evolve.