Is Cannabis Medicine?

By David Jenison

Chuck Rosenberg, the former chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), told CBS News in November 2015 that cannabis is “bad and dangerous” and that medical cannabis is “a joke.” Around the exact same time, Rosenberg praised the FBI Director’s “Ferguson effect”—the idea that looking into these police shootings has a chilling effect on law enforcement—as “spot on.” Where the fuck did the Obama Administration find this guy? Two months after his “joke” comment, a petition topped 150,000 signatures calling for Rosenberg to resign. Rosenberg studied law—not science, medicine or history—so he naturally has no idea that cannabis was one of the first plants ever used as medicine.

Is cannabis medicine? Cultures around the world treated it as such for millennia, and pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Merck, Bristol Myers Squibb, American Home Products and Upjohn (sometimes under previous company names) all sold medical cannabis pre-prohibition. Today, clinical studies around the world suggest potential therapeutic applications for cancer, inflammation, chronic pain, epilepsy, Alzheimer's, Parkinson’s, HIV, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and several other conditions. At this point, cannabis-as-medicine deniers are largely limited to antiquated prohibitionists like Rosenberg, and the real question is the extent of its medical applications and efficacy.

Cannabis in Chinese Medicine

Around 2700 B.C., Emperor Shen Nung recommended cannabis as a treatment for more than 100 ailments. Venerated as the Father of Chinese Medicine and the possible inventor of tea, the emperor provided the basis for Pen Ts’ao Ching, the world’s oldest pharmacopoeia, which suggested medicinal cannabis use for gout, rheumatism, malaria and intestinal constipation. Later, around the second century A.D., the Chinese surgeon Hua T’o (a.k.a. the founder of Chinese surgery) began to experiment with cannabis as an anesthetic. By combining cannabis resin with wine to create an anesthetic called ma-yo, Hua T’o found he was able to reduce patients’ pain during surgical procedures like organ grafts, resectioning of the intestines, loin incisions and chest incisions.

Medical Cannabis in India

Cannabis came to India from China thousands of years ago, and Hindu texts consider it a sacred plant. Some suggest the Hindu god Shiva created cannabis, or bhang, from his body to purify the elixir of life, while other texts call Shiva the Lord of Bhang and treat the cannabis bhang beverage as a sacrament. Studies also suggest that medicinal uses date back millennia with 9th- and 10th-century references. According to ancient texts, doctors used bhang to treat a variety of conditions, including insomnia, headaches, gastrointestinal disorders and pain, especially during childbirth. Bhang was also believed to have been used in treating dysentery, sunstroke and clearing phlegm.

A British doctor named William O’Shaughnessy working in India conducted the first comprehensive clinical trials of the plant’s medicinal benefits. The doctor published his findings in 1839, and he is credited with introducing indica strains to western medicine. Back in England, Dr. O’Shaughnessy became a fellow of the Royal Society, an honor bestowed for making a “substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge.”

Unlike many western countries, medicinal cannabis has always remained legal in India. Even now it remains an integral part of what’s known as Ayurvedic medicine, and today in India, pharmaceutical students are educated about the properties of cannabis.

Medical Cannabis in the U.S.

The land of the red, white and blue used to be a lot greener. British and French colonists started cultivating cannabis and hemp in the early 1600s, and George Washington recommended that people “sow it everywhere.” From around 1851 to 1941, the government listed cannabis in the United States Pharmacopeia, and hemp extracts were used in food and medicine. Eli Lilly, Parke-Davis (Pfizer) and Squibb & Sons (Bristol-Myers-Squibb) sold it, newspapers advertised it, the Sears-Roebuck catalog listed it and the Red Cross even promoted it. At the start of the 20th century, anti-cannabis crusaders like Harvey Wiley and Harry Anslinger helped pass and promote prohibition with legislation like the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, the Uniform State Narcotics Act, the Marijuana Tax Act, the Boggs Act, the Narcotics Control Act and the infamous Controlled Substances Act of 1970 that said cocaine and crystal meth have more medical value than cannabis.

While cannabis remains a 100-percent prohibited drug under the Controlled Substances Act, clinical findings are forcing U.S. government agencies to modify their no-medical-value stances. In 2015, the National Cancer Institute admitted that cannabis can help treat cancer symptoms, inhibit tumor growth and kill cancer cells. Likewise, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a long-time prohibition supporter with a domain, addressed the issue with a 2015 article titled “Is Marijuana Medicine?” NIDA noted that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has yet to recognize cannabis as such, but scientific studies into cannabinoids seem to suggest that it is. The article called for more research, not an end to prohibition, but government agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services already procured patents like “Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants.”

What do the modern medical journals say? In 2015, the American Medical Association (AMA) published a systematic review of 79 clinical trials and medical 28 databases, and it found evidence to support medical cannabis treatments for chronic pain, spasticity, chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting, sleep disorders and Tourette syndrome. The U.S. embraced medical cannabis for at least a century before prohibition, and despite decades of unfounded propaganda, the medical and scientific communities are stepping up to highlight once again the plant’s therapeutic value.


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