History of Medical Cannabis

Cannabis has been a versatile cultivated crop for at least 10,000 years. References about its medicinal use can be found since ancient times. Cannabis was a well-established medicine in Europe and America up until the end of the 19th century; in the 20th century – due to economic interests, cannabis began to be discredited as solely an intoxicant. Today, cannabinoid medicine is experiencing a renaissance worldwide.

Hemp is one of the oldest known cultivated crops in the world. Archeological finds from 10,000-year-old pottery shards with ornamental hemp cords in Taiwan suggest that this plant has been used since the Stone Age, at least in the Indochinese area. It is certain that hemp was cultivated in Asia for several thousand years to obtain fabric, ropes and food. Its use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is also well documented. “Ma,” as cannabis is referred to in the ancient texts of TCM, was a popular medicinal herb there, as it displays both “yin” and “yang” properties.

Cannabis has been used in religious rites and healing ceremonies in many cultures since pre-Christian times and is still used today within Indian culture to support meditation practice, which suggests the utilisation of THC’s psychotropic properties. The hemp plant was considered sacred in both the Indian Vedas (1500 to 1300 BC) and in the book Shen-nung (China, circa 3000 BC). Hemp is also immortalised in the elaborate depictions of the Egyptian pyramids.

Fig. 1 . Neter Seshat, goddess of sacred measurements, with a cannabis leaf above her head. Temple of Luxor
In European culture, there are further indications for the long utilisation of hemp: Hemp seeds and garments made of hemp were found in Celtic and Germanic grave goods (circa 500 BC); Medical scholars of the Roman Empire and Greece (circa 100 AD) as well as the well-known herbalist and Christian nun, Hildegard von Bingen (circa 1000 AD) wrote recipes for the therapeutic use of cannabis. In the Jewish Talmud, which dates back to the Middle Ages, there is also an unmistakable mention of the cannabis plant.

Why was cannabis traditionally used in medicine?

  • As a psychedelic (magical rites, spiritual crises)
  • For neurological diseases (hysteria, headache / migraine, convulsions)
  • For the treatment of malaria, rheumatism, gout, tetanus, rabies, childhood seizures, delirium tremens
  • As an analgesic for chronic pain of various causes, joint inflammation, migraine, muscle cramps
  • loss of appetite, stomach ache, constipation
  • insomnia
  • gynaecological ailments (to ease labour, for uterine bleeding & menstrual cramps)
  • substitution therapy for opiate and chloral hydrate
  • addiction
  • asthma
  • depression
  • glaucoma

By the end of the 19th century, cannabis products were well established medicines in Europe and the USA. There were ready-to-use products available from Merck in Germany, Bourroughs, Wellcome & Co. in the UK and Squibb, Parke, Davis & Co as well as Eli Lilly & Co in the USA. At the beginning of the 20th century, a “pale yellow syrup” was extracted from cannabis that turned out to be THC, whose exact chemical structure was discovered in 1964 by Israeli scientists.

Das Bild ein Beweis darüber, dass Cannabis bereits ein Heilmittel war. Laut Bild in der USA sicherlich.

It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that cannabis began to be discredited as solely an intoxicant without any medical properties. The accelerating development of synthetic drugs such as aspirin, chloral hydrate, barbiturates and opiates gradually replaced non-standardized phytotherapeutics. Around 1925, a lobby opposing the cultivation and use of hemp, led by Harry Jacob Anslinger, formed in the US. In 1931 he was appointed as chairman of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics by banker Andrew W. Mellon, future US Treasury Secretary and uncle of his future wife. In this position he set a worldwide ban on the cultivation of hemp in the 1960s. Apart from the pharmaceutical industry, the timber, cotton and oil industries in particular benefited from the disappearance of (fibre) hemp. Interestingly, Mellon's family was involved in timber business.

Since the discovery of the endocannabinoid system in the 1990’s, research into the medicinal properties of cannabis has grown exponentially, but had to overcome considerable bureaucratic hurdles due to the continuing prohibition policy in many countries. The off-label or no-label use of medicinal cannabis for a variety of diseases, especially chronic pain, is nowadays well supported by medical literature (Baron et al., 2018 Review). In US states where medicinal cannabis was legalised, a 24.8% reduction of fatalities from the (accidental) overdose of opioids could be recorded (Bachhuber et al., 2014).

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Arbeitsgemeinschaft Cannabs Medizin – Die Geschichte der Medizinischen Verwendung von Cannabisprodukten

Brand EJ, Zhao Z. Cannabis in Chinese Medicine: Are Some Traditional Indications Referenced in Ancient Literature Related to Cannabinoids? Front Pharmacol. 2017;8:108. doi:10.3389/fphar.2017.00108


Bachuber MA, Saloner B, Cunningham CO, Barry CL. Medical cannabis laws and opioid analgesic overdose mortality in the US, 1999–2010. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174:1668-1673

Baron EP, Lucas P, Eades J, Hogue O. Patterns of medicinal cannabis use, strain analysis, and substitution effect among patients with migraine, headache, arthritis, and chronic pain in a medicinal cannabis cohort. 2018;19(1):37. doi:10.1186/s10194-018-0862-2