The Long History and Modern Resurgence of Medical Cannabis | CAC
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The Long History and Modern Resurgence of Medical Cannabis

Cannabis history

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Did you know that in 2020, a survey by the Conservative Drug Policy Reform Group found that 77% of Britons supported the legalisation of medical cannabis1

This significant shift highlights the growing acceptance of cannabis as a valuable tool in healthcare, echoing its historical use. The history of medical cannabis dates back thousands of years, beginning around 2800 BC when the ancient Chinese Emperor Shen Nung documented its numerous medical applications. Various cultures have utilised cannabis for its therapeutic benefits over time, including for treating arthritis in ancient Egypt and as an anaesthetic for surgeries in China

Cannabis continued to play a significant role throughout history, from Hindu rituals to Greco-Roman treatments for mental health and pain. However, the early 1900s saw a decline in its medical use, culminating in the 1970 Controlled Substances Act in the U.S., which made cannabis illegal for medical purposes.

Today, research and public opinion are increasingly recognising the medical value of cannabis, driven by contemporary science and evolving health needs.

Key Takeaways on Medical Cannabis

  • 77% of Britons supported medical marijuana use in 2020.
  • Medical cannabis has been utilised since 2800 BC, starting with Emperor Shen Nung’s pharmacopoeia.
  • Cannabis was revered for treating ailments such as arthritis, depression, and pain in various ancient cultures.
  • The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 led to a significant decline in the medical use of cannabis.
  • Renewed research and changing societal attitudes are restoring interest in the medical applications of cannabis.

Cannabis history

Ancient Origins and Early Use

The origins of medical marijuana trace back to ancient times when it was regarded as a powerful healing plant. Around 100 AD, the Shennong Bencaojing, a Chinese medical book, documented cannabis as a medicinal herb, highlighting its early therapeutic value2. Emperor Shen Nung, living between 2737 and 2697 BC, is credited with identifying various medical uses for cannabis over 2000 years before Christ.

The ancient Greeks used cannabis to treat wounds and care for animals, while in India, it played a crucial role in religious ceremonies and healing practices for sleep problems, headaches, and stomach issues. The Ebers Papyrus from around 1550 BC in Egypt also mentions using cannabis for inflammation treatment.

In a late Neolithic grave in the Netherlands, cannabis pollen was found, suggesting its use to ease pain around 2459-2203 BCE. A Chinese surgeon named Hua Tuo, about 1800 years ago, used cannabis as an anaesthetic for surgery.

The reverence for cannabis extended to Hindu gods, and today, over 50 countries use it medically, underscoring its historical and cultural significance as a healing plant3.

Medical Cannabis in Greek and Roman Medicine

Cannabis’s use is well-documented in ancient Greek and Roman medicine. The Greeks used it for ear pain and swelling, recognising its therapeutic benefits early on2. Roman writer Pliny the Elder detailed its healing properties, noting its use for treating horse wounds as well as human ailments4.

Both cultures valued cannabis for its medical applications, demonstrating its wide range of uses long before modern medicine acknowledged its benefits.

Cannabis history

The Spread and Evolution Through the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, medical cannabis remained a well-known remedy in Islamic and Chinese medicine. Arabic doctors praised its effectiveness in treating various illnesses, including those affecting women.

Cannabis’s historical use spans numerous cultures, from China and Egypt to Greece, highlighting its importance as a medicinal plant. Herodotus noted its use in ceremonies by the Scythians, while in medieval China and Islam, it was valued for its health benefits5.

Europe also recognised medical cannabis’s benefits, further demonstrating its adaptability and widespread historical use.

The Introduction of Medical Cannabis to Western Medicine

In the 1830s, Irish doctor William Brooke O’Shaughnessy played a crucial role in introducing medical cannabis to Western medicine. His studies showed cannabis could help in treating muscle spasms and pain, bridging Eastern and Western medical practices.

O’Shaughnessy’s research led to the widespread acceptance of cannabis-based medicines in the 19th century. Although its use declined in the 20th century due to changing laws and perceptions, his work remains pivotal in the history of medical cannabis.

cannabis history

The Controlled Substances Act and the Decline of Medical Cannabis

The 1970 Controlled Substances Act significantly altered the medical use of cannabis in the U.S., categorising it as a substance with no accepted medical use, thus limiting research and its medicinal application.

Before 1970, cannabis was popular for its health benefits. However, the Act’s stringent regulations hindered its study and use. Today, changing attitudes are reshaping public opinion, with a 2016 survey indicating strong support for medical cannabis, especially for veterans with PTSD.

Despite ongoing debates, there is a growing acceptance of medical cannabis, signalling a potential future where its use could become more mainstream, paving the way for new research and treatments.

Modern Research and Changing Attitudes

Modern research on medical cannabis has made significant strides, focusing on cannabinoids like CBD and THC for treating various conditions. In 1964, Israeli researchers Raphael Mechoulam and Yechiel Gaoni identified THC’s structure, advancing our understanding of cannabis’s therapeutic potential5.

Legalisation in many regions has facilitated more research into cannabis’s medical benefits. Today, 60% of Americans support medical cannabis, reflecting a shift towards recognising its value in healthcare.

Studies have shown that medical cannabis can reduce opioid use among pain patients by 64% and has significantly increased the number of UK patients using it for treatment. As laws and scientific knowledge evolve, medical cannabis is poised to play a larger role in healthcare.

cannabis history


Medical cannabis has a rich history, valued for its healing properties since ancient times. Despite periods of decline due to legal and societal changes, there is a resurgence of interest driven by modern research and changing attitudes. With increasing acceptance and ongoing studies, medical cannabis is set to become a more integral part of healthcare, offering new hope and treatments for patients.