Given the recent spate of media attention surrounding the healing powers of marijuana, one might think that medical use of cannabis is a new phenomenon. Certainly our governments act as if marijuana were a recently invented drug, demanding extensive and lengthy testing before they will consider not arresting and incarcerating med-pot users.
Yet the cannabis plant can be considered one of humanity’s oldest cultural objects, and we can be sure that it was among the first medicines ancient people took from nature’s pharmacopoeia. The shadowy time of pre-history must be left to speculation, but there is a written recorded history of medical cannabis use stretching back over 4,000 years.
Elixir of immortality
The earliest written reference to the use of marijuana as a medicine is believed to have occurred sometime around 2,800 BC, in the medical compendium known as the Pen Ts’ao of the legendary Chinese Emperor Shen-Nung. (Although the oldest copy of the Pen Ts’ao dates to about 100 AD, most scholars agree that the anonymous author incorporated more ancient versions into his text.)
As Emperor, Shen-Nung was concerned that the priests were unable to effectively treat the maladies of his subjects by performing magical rites, and decided to find alternative remedies for the sick. The Emperor was also an expert botanist, and had a thorough knowledge of plants. With this in mind, undoubtedly taken alongside a knowledge of indigenous folk remedies, Shen-Nung decided to explore the curative powers of plants, using himself as the test subject.
In the Chinese cosmology, the universe is composed of two elements, the yang, representing the active, positive, masculine force, and yin, the passive, negative, female force. When these forces are in balance within the individual, then the body is healthy ? too much of one or not enough of another and the result is disease. Shen-Nung determined that it was the female cannabis plant that contained the most potent medicine, being a very high source of yin. He prescribed chu-ma, (female hemp, as opposed to ma, hemp) for the treatment of absentmindedness, constipation, malaria, beri-beri, rheumatism and menstrual problems. Shen-Nung, known as the “Father of Chinese Medicine”, was so thoroughly impressed with the beneficial effects of chu-ma that he deemed it one of the Superior Elixirs of Immortality.
Throughout the centuries, Chinese physicians continued to prescribe marijuana, and new discoveries were made about its properties. In 200 AD, the early and renowned Chinese surgeon Hua T’o was reputed to have performed such complicated operations as organ grafts, resectioning of intestines, and incisions into the loin and chest.1 Moreover, these dangerous and complicated surgeries were rendered painless by an anesthetic prepared from cannabis resin and wine known as ma-yo.
Hua T’o’s use of cannabis as an anesthetic may be related to effects of cannabinoids discovered by later researchers. In extremely high doses, powerful extracts of cannabis have been reported to put imbibers into a state similar to animal “hibernation” which is combined with a rigormortis-like physical condition of catalepsy. The US army sponsored tests in the 1950’s, where massive doses of THC put dogs into a deep sleep for eight days, after which they awoke and showed no ill effects. 2
The US army was not the first to research this little-known quality of marijuana. In Emily Murphy’s 1920 piece of Canadian anti-marijuana propaganda, The Black Candle, she wrote: “Eminent medical doctors in India, principally Calcutta, have made experiments with Cannabis Indica and have discovered that it induces symptoms of catalepsy or even trance. It is also claimed that the fakeers of India who suffer themselves to be buried, and who are later disinterred, do so through the agency of this drug. Some years earlier a Dr James Braid of Edinburgh wrote a monograph on this subject entitled Trance and Human Hibernations.”
In China, the effectiveness of marijuana medicine led to its adoption as a sort of medical symbol analogous to the Greek caduceus. Chinese shamans used a cannabis stalk carved with an intertwining serpent to cast out evil demons and heal the sick. Cannabis’ use as a medicine in China continued well into medieval times, and 10th century writings refer to its use in “waste diseases and injuries,” noting also that it “clears blood and cools temperature, it relieves fluxes; it undoes rheumatism; it discharges pus.”1
The Chinese use of cannabis to treat “waste diseases” brings to mind pot’s modern application in reducing nausea and enhancing the appetite of modern “wasting syndromes” AIDS and cancer. Chinese references to the use of cannabis in injuries and rheumatism are also verified by later researchers. In The Emperor Wears No Clothes, Jack Herer explains that “Cannabis is a topical analgesic. Until 1937, virtually all corn plasters, muscle ointments, and [cystic]fibrosis poultices were made from or with cannabis extracts.”3
A common and effective home remedy for rheumatism in South America, was to heat cannabis in water, with alcohol, and rub the solution into the effected areas. In the middle of the 19th century, Dr WB O’Shaughnessy claimed to have successfully treated rheumatism (along with other maladies), with “half grain doses of …[hemp]resin” given orally.
Ancient Chinese references to marijuana being useful to “discharge pus” have also been confirmed by later researchers. A 1960 study in Czechoslovakia was the first to scientifically conclude that “cannabidiociolic acid, a product of the unripe hemp plant, has bacteriocidal properties.” 4
According to Marihuana; The Forbidden Medicine, by Dr Lester Grinspoon, Czech researchers “found that cannabis extracts containing cannabidiolic acid produce impressive antibacterial effects on a number of micro-organisms, including strains of staphylococcus that resists penicillin and other antibiotics.” The book further explains that “the Czechs successfully treated a variety of conditions, including ear infections, with cannabis lotions and ointments. Topical application of cannabis relieved pain and prevented infection in second-degree burns…” 5
Further, the Chinese use of cannabis in the treatment of “menstrual problems” is something that others have discovered independently. The US Dispensatory of 1854 listed cannabis extract as a remedy for “uterine hemorrhage”, as well as other maladies. In 1937, the same year that cannabis was prohibited, Dr Robert P Walton wrote, “Some have been particularly enthusiastic regarding the value of cannabis in dysmenorrhea and menorrhagia [excessive menstrual bleeding].” Walton quotes other contemporary doctors saying .”..there is no medicine which has given such good results; for this reason it ought to take the first place as a remedy in menorrhagia.”6
Not surprisingly, the Chinese were not the only ones to discover the benefits of the healing herb in the ancient world. The ancient Ayurvedic system of Indian medicine contains a number of references to cannabis. The Ayurveda traces its roots back to a semi-mythical gathering of sages in the Himalayas that took place about 5,000 BC. The Sages, who arrived from all areas of the country, exchanged their knowledge of healing, and this was passed down verbally for some generations until finally being committed to writing sometime around the first century AD.
Ayurvedic physicians of India continue to use bhang to treat many medical problems, including diarrhea, epilepsy, delirium and insanity, colic, rheumatism, gastritis, anorexia, consumption, fistula, nausea, fever, jaundice, bronchitis, leprosy, spleen disorders, diabetes, cold, anemia, menstrual pain, tuberculosis, elephantiasis, asthma, gout, constipation, and malaria. 7
Later Indian texts such as the Tajni Guntu, the Rajbulubha and the Susruta list cannabis as a treatment for conditions including “clearing phlegm, expelling flatulence, inducing costiveness, sharpening memory, increasing eloquence, as an appetite stimulant, for gonorrhea, and as a general tonic.”
Considering the ancient trade routes that existed between the ancient Near East and India, its not surprising to find that in Assyrian writings from about 800-500 BC, the word qunnabu (qunapy, qunubu, qunbu) began appearing as a source of oil, fiber and medicine. 8
Ancient Babylonian texts referred to cannabis’ use in ointments for swelling and for the “loss of control of the lower limbs.”9 Cannabis was also used internally for stomach ailments and as “an intoxicant to cheer the spirits… a drug for grief.”10 As with the ancient Chinese, Indian ayurvedic physicians and later 19th century medical papers, in ancient Assyria cannabis was used with other ingredients for the treatment of “female ailments” and as an “anodyne used in menorrhagia and dysmenorrhoea.”10
In Egypt, marijuana medicine was used to treat many of these same ailments over 3,000 years ago. “In ancient Egypt, hemp is noted as a drug in the Berlin and Ebers papyri, internally by smoking, and in a salve. It was called sm sm’t.”9 Likewise, the ancient Arabic Unani Tibbi system makes extensive use of hemp for healing.
When one considers the longstanding use of cannabis medicines in the ancient Near East, particularly ointments and salves, the theory that early Christians used cannabis-enriched holy ointment to produce “miraculous” healings becomes plausible.
Earlier articles (CC#5 Cannabis in the Old Testament; CC#11 Cannabis and the Christ) described the history of the sacred cannabis-based anointing oil, and the use of this oil in the treatment of a variety of diseases.
Amongst the more well known of Jesus’ miracles is his healing of the lepers that appears in the first three Gospel accounts. Most scholars agree that the Greek word translated “leprosy” likely refers to severe pruritis, also known as atopic dermatitis. Properly prepared cannabis ointments contain potent bactericidal properties, and have been used to successfully treat pruritis and other skin disorders.
Gnostic gospels have more direct references to the healing powers of the holy oil. The Gospel of Philip states that the holy oil “healed the wounds.” The Acts of Thomas refers to the “plant of kindness” in association with the holy oil, and instructs that it be used to “heal… sores.”
In the Acts of Thomas, we read that “Thou holy oil given unto us for sanctification… thou art the straightener of the crooked limbs.” Cannabis is known for its use in relieving the pain of warn and crippled joints, and this application of the holy oil could reasonably account for the miraculous healing of cripples attributed to Jesus and his disciples.
In the ancient world and up until medieval times, the disease now known as epilepsy was considered to be demonic possession, and its victims were outcasts from society. Jesus’ miraculous healings of the demonically possessed can thus also be explained by the use of cannabis, which is well-known for its anti-epileptic effects.
Medical marijuana advocate Dr Lester Grinspoon has offered testimonials from many epilepsy sufferers who have found that natural marijuana controls their seizures. He also quotes studies from 1975 and 1980 which noted the positive reports of cannabis and synthetic cannabidiol in the treatment of epilepsy.5 Epileptic Canadian Terry Parker recently convinced the Supreme Court of Ontario as to the healing effects of cannabis on epilepsy, resulting in the court ordering Parliament to re-write Canada’s pot laws.
The use of medical marijuana in the Near East continued well up into medieval times. While the Catholic Church had banned cannabis use in Europe, medieval Moslems used the plant to treat a variety of ailments, including relief of flatulence, clearing up dandruff, a diuretic, cleansing of the brain, soothing of the pain of the ears, increasing the appetite, aiding digestion, and epilepsy. By the 8th century the Indian Ayurevedic texts had been translated into Arabic, deeply influencing the works of Islamic physicians such as Avicenna, and the “father of alchemy” Jerber, both of whom had a comprehensive knowledge of cannabis’ effects.
The medieval Arabic author of the Mukzun-ul-Udwieh said of cannabis that “The leaves make a good snuff for deterging the brain; the
juice of the leaves applied to the head as a wash, removes dandrin and vermin; drops of juice thrown into the ear allay pain, and destroy worms or insects. It checks diarrhoea; is useful in gonorrhea; restrains seminal secretions, and is diuretic… The powder is recommended as an external application to fresh wounds and sores… a poultice of the boiled root and leaves for reducing inflammations… and for allaying neuralgic pains. The dried leaves bruised and spread on a castor oil leaf cure hydrocele and swelled testes…”
Rumphius’ Herbarium Amboinese, (1695), composed from Arabic sources, relates that cannabis was still in use in the treatment of many of the above maladies, noting also the “use of Hemp smoke as an enema in strangulated hernia, and of the leaves as an antidote to poisoning…”11
As Europeans crusdaers returned from the Holy Land, news of cannabis’ medicinal qualities returned with them. In later medieval times cannabis was popularly used as an ingredient in salves for dressing wounds, and a variety of ointments and plasters. Cannabis was commonly used in English medicinal recipes of the 14th and 15th centuries and appears in the records of the St John the Baptist Hospital in Winchester and in the 1794 edition of the Edinburgh New Dispensatory, which referred to the use of the plant in the treatment for venereal disease and as a cough remedy.
The well known medieval nun and poet Hildegard of Bingen recommended “hempseed” for the relief of pain in her Physica, and cannabis received mention as a healing plant in herbals such as those by William Turner, Mattioli, Dioscobas Taber and Nicholas Culpepper.7
During the 19th century more than a hundred papers on the clinical application of cannabis appeared in the world’s medical journals. Physicians found cannabis to be effective in the treatment of virtually all the ailments that it was diagnosed for by the ancients, as well as numerous other medical problems.
Much of this interest in medical marijuana was inspired by a forty page 1839 article On the Preparation of the Indian Hemp or Gunja, by Dr WB O’Shaughnessy,11 who collected his research while working as a physician in British-ruled India. O’Shaugnessy collected and studied many ancient medical texts, and experimented with cannabis in the treatment of a number of maladies, reporting positive results in the treatment of cholera, tetanus and epilepsy.
O’Shaugnessy later returned to England with a quantity of cannabis and this was converted to an extract for medical purposes by pharmacist Peter Squire. This physician 19th century cannabis extract came to be known as Squire’s Extract, and shortly after launched Squire and his sons into a successful career as the most renowned supplier of cannabis medicine throughout Europe and abroad.
Queen Victoria’s 19th century prescription of a cannabis extract for her menstrual problems by court physician Dr JR Reynolds was nothing novel ? Reynolds considered cannabis “one of the most valuable medicines we possess.”
The 1851 US Dispensatory reported of cannabis: “Extract of hemp is a powerful narcotic [here meaning sleep-producing drug], causing exhilaration, intoxication, delirious hallucination, and, in its subsequent action, drowsiness and stupor, with little effect upon the circulation. It is asserted also to act as a decided aphrodisiac, to increase appetite, and occasionally to induce the cataleptic state. In morbid states of the system, it has been found to cause sleep, to allay spasm, to compose nervous disquietude, and to relieve pain…. The complaints in which it has been specially recommended are neuralgia, gout, rheumatism, tetanus, hydrophobia, epidemic cholera, convulsions, chorea, hysteria, mental depression, delirium tremens, insanity and uterine hemorrhage.”
In 1898, the well known physician and Harvard Professor of Medicine, Sir William Osler, wrote that cannabis “is probably the most satisfactory remedy” for the pain of migraine headaches, a view championed almost forty years earlier by the Ohio Medical Society and other researchers. Fluid extracts of cannabis were marketed by Parke Davis, Squibb, Lilly, Burroughs Welcome, and other leading firms. Ready-made marijuana cigarettes were actually marketed by Grimault and Sons, for use as an asthma remedy.”
The introduction of cannabis prohibition brought a gradual end to the use of cannabis-based medicines. The almost complete lack of medicinal cannabis for the past six decades has been a historical aberration. Yet research over the past decade continues to expand upon the number of ailments which can be treated with cannabis and cannabis extracts. Recent studies have confirmed the beneficial effects of cannabinoids in reducing brain damage from a stroke, offering protection from neuro-toxins, reducing tumours, and myriad other applications.
Yet as the pharmaceutical companies wish to patent and own the active ingredients of numerous plant medicines developed by South American Indians, without giving their indigenous discoverers anything in return, so we can be sure that these companies and the medical establishment will join the med-pot band-wagon only after they have successfully isolated and patented its various compounds, possibly even patenting specific strains.
Despite the lies and propaganda spewed by our national governments, countless people will always be drawn to self-medicate with home-grown cannabis, recognizing that “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations,” despite the protestations of those who would steal the sovereignty all humans have over their own body.
1 Abel, Ernest; Marihuana, The First Twelve Thousand Years, (Phenum Press,1980)
2 Wilson, Robert Anton; Sex & Drugs, (Playboy Press 1973).
3 Herer, Jack, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, (Queen of Clubs 1985)
4 Mikuriya, Todd H. M.D.,Ed.; Marijuana Medical Papers, (Medi-Comp Press 1973)
5 Grinspoon, Dr.L. and James Bakalar, Marihuana; The Forbidden Medicine, (Yale University Press, New Haven and London 1993)
7 Robinson, Rowan; The Great Book of Hemp, (Park Street Press, 1996).
8 Barber, E.M.; Pre-historic Textiles, (Princeton University Press, 1989).
9 Encyclopedia of Islam
10 Thompson, R. Campbell, M.A., F.S.A., The Assyrian Herbal, (Luzac and Co., London, 1924).
11 (O’Shaughnessy 1839)