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Major Studies of Drugs and Drug Policy
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Volume I - General Orientation

Chapter 9 - Use of marijuana for therapeutic purposes 



The therapeutic potential of marijuana has apparently been known since the beginning of recorded history. In fact, marijuana was likely used for medicinal purposes even before its psychoactive properties were tapped.

The medical history of marijuana is closely related to its analgesic properties, as noted by Ethan Russo:


Cannabis has a history as an analgesic agent that spans at least 4000 years, including a century in mainstream Western medicine. […] The reasons lie in the remarkable pharmacological properties of the herb and new scientific research reveals the inextricable link that cannabinoids possess with our own internal biochemistry. In essence, the cannabinoids form a system in parallel with that of the endogenous opioids in modulating pain. More important, cannabis and its endogenous synthetic counterparts may be uniquely effective in pain syndromes in which opiates and other analgesics fail.[1][10]


According to Russo, written documents and ethnographic traces of medical use of marijuana have been found in many countries. In China, a second-century medical paper reported that marijuana was used as a surgical anaesthetic. In India, marijuana was been used to treat migraines and chronic pain 2000 B.C. In Egypt, where most scholars thought that marijuana had not been introduced, there is evidence that it had been in use in medicine since the days of the pharaohs; traces of marijuana were found in the tombs of Amenophis IV and Ramses II. Marijuana was apparently used to treat glaucoma and labour pain. Marijuana was administered orally, rectally or vaginally, applied to the skin, inserted in the eyes and smoked.

In Assyria, Babylonia and Arcadia, marijuana was apparently used as an analgesic to treat migraines and menstrual pain and for its psychoactive properties. Evidence of marijuana use to control labour pain has also been found in Palestine and Israel. The Greeks and Romans used marijuana for general pain control and specifically for gout and rheumatism. In the Muslim world, there are references to therapeutic use dating back to the ninth century.

In the mid 17th century, western medicine discovered the medicinal properties of marijuana. A compendium of plants published in 1640 in England made reference to marijuana being used in the form of a paste containing essence from the plant and other ingredients. In France, the work on hemp published by Mercandier described a number of uses: dried and applied as a plaster, it eased the pain associated with tumours; boiled and applied as a plaster, it helped ease the pain of rheumatism, gout and various muscle inflammations; crushed into a powder and mixed with butter, it soothed burns. In his classification of plants, Linnée recognized the medicinal properties of marijuana as a pain reducer.

Medical use of marijuana became more widespread in England in the middle of the 19th century when the plant was brought back from India. Even the personal physician of Queen Victoria, Russell Reynolds, used it: he treated his celebrated patient for dysmenorrhea throughout her adult life using cannabis extract. In an 1868 paper, he wrote that unlike opiates, marijuana could be used today without causing problems tomorrow.[2][11]

Between 1890 and 1940, English, Irish, French and then American physicians and pharmacists testified in different ways to the usefulness of various marijuana preparations in relieving pain. One British pharmacologist even reintroduced the smoking of marijuana in 1899, pointing out that smoking was particularly useful if an immediate effect was desired.[3][12]

Marijuana is still part of the pharmacopoeia, at least informally, of many countries in southeast Asia. Marijuana use in India was recently described as follows:


Charas is the resinous exudation that collects on the leaves and flowering tops of plants (equivalent to the Arabic hashish); it is the active principle of hemp; it is a valuable narcotic, especially in cases where opium cannot be administered it is of great value in malarial and periodical headaches, migraine, acute mania, whooping cough, cough of phtisis, asthma, anaemia of brain, nervous vomiting, tetanos, convulsion, insanity, delirium, dysuria, and nervous exhaustion; it is also used as an anaesthetic in dysmennorhea, as an appetizer and aphrodisiac, as an anodyne in itching of eczema, neuralgia, severe pains of various kinds of corns, etc. [4][13]


It is also used in Colombia, Jamaica and Brazil.

It is tempting, of course, enamoured as we are with our modern science, to dismiss these traditional uses as “home remedies” – and the stuff of quacks. However, the fact that marijuana has been used so long for the same types of condition, that it has sometimes been described so accurately, that it has transcended cultures and histories, and that modern medicine suggests that marijuana could in fact be useful in treating the chronic pain associated with various medical conditions should stop us from being too cynical about these “old-fashioned” uses.  


[1][10]  Russo, E.B. (2002), “The role of cannabis and cannabinoids in pain management”, in Weiner, R.S. (ed.), Pain Management. A Practical Guide for Clinicians, Boca Raton, London, New York, Washington: CRC Press.

[2][11]  Quoted in Russo, op. cit., page 359.

[3][12]  Ibid., page 360.

[4][13]  Ibid., page 361.

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