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Medicinal cannabis history, sketch from history book
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History of cannabis

The history of the cannabis plant

The medicinal properties of the cannabis plant have been known for millennia. As far back as 2800 BC, cannabis was used to treat a vast array of health problems and was listed in Emperor Shen Nung's pharmacopoeia.

Cannabis has a long and colourful history. The use of cannabis originated in central Asia or western China. Cannabis has been used for its alleged healing properties for millennia. The first documented case of its use dates back to 2800 BC, when it was listed in the Emperor Shen Nung's (regarded as the father of Chinese medicine) pharmacopoeia. Therapeutic indications of cannabis are mentioned in the texts of the Indian Hindus, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans. These texts reported cannabis to treat a vast array of different health problems, including arthritis, depression, amenorrhea, inflammation, pain, lack of appetite and asthma.

Hindu legend holds that Shiva, the supreme Godhead of many sects, was given the title ‘The Lord of Bhang’, because the cannabis plant was his favourite food. The ancient Hindus thought the medicinal benefits of cannabis were explained by pleasing the gods such as Shiva. Ancient Hindu texts attribute the onset of fever with the ‘hot breath of the gods’ who were angered by the afflicted person's behaviour. Using cannabis in religious rites appeased the gods and hence reduced the fever.

Recent scientific evidence provides an alternative explanation of course. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) acts on the hypothalamus to reduce body temperature. 

A brief timeline of cannabis and cannabinoid research

  • 2800 BC

    Cannabis was listed in Emperor Shen Nung's pharmacopoeia.
  • BC

    Hindu legend holds that Shiva was given the title ‘The Lord of Bhang’ because the cannabis plant was his favourite food.
  • 129-200 AD

    Galen used cannabis for its therapeutic properties and mood enhancement.
  • 1841

    William Brooke O’Shaughnessy introduced cannabis to Western medicine after living in India. He wrote of many therapeutic uses of cannabis, including a case where cannabis stopped convulsions in a child.
  • 1898

    Dunstan and Henry isolated cannabinol (CBN).
  • 1936

    The film Reefer Madness was released, demonising cannabis as a highly addictive drug that caused mental disorder and violence.
  • 1937

    The uses of cannabis for medicinal and recreational purposes were effectively taxed out of existence in the USA by the Marijuana Tax Act.
  • 1940s

    Adams and Todd independently isolated cannabidiol (CBD).
  • 1964

    Mechoulam (pictured with Dave Allsop) isolated THC from the cannabis plant.
  • 1970

    US introduced the Controlled Substance Act that lists cannabis as having ‘no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse’.
  • 1988

    Howlett discovered CB1 receptors in the rat brain.
  • 1992

    Devane and Mechoulam discovered anandamide.
  • 1993

    Discovery of CB2 receptors.
  • 1995

    Mechoulam and Sugiura independently discovered 2-AG.
  • 1996

    California legalised medical cannabis by introducing the Compassionate Use Act.
  • 1999

    Endocannabinoids discovered to activate TRPV1 receptors (these are the receptors activated by the spicy compound in chilli)
  • 2007

    Endocannabinoids shown to activate GPR55.
  • 2012

    CBD shown to alleviate schizophrenia symptoms in patients comparable to a conventional antipsychotic drug.
  • 2016

    Australia legalised medical cannabis and its cultivation for medical purposes.
  • 2017

    CBD demonstrated to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy in a placebo-controlled trial
Its seed is said to make the genitals impotent. The juice from it drives out of the ears the worms and any other creature that has entered them, but at the cost of a headache; so potent is its nature that when poured into water it is said to make it coagulate. And so, drunk in its water, it regulates the bowels of beasts of burden. The root boiled in water eases cramped joints, gout too and similar violent pains. It is applied to raw burns, but is often changed before it gets dry.
Pliny the Elder