Historical Use of Cannabis

For more than 6,000 years, cannabis and humans have crossed paths. The oldest archaeological record of cannabis was in central Europe in the Bylony culture. Archaeological evidence points to shamanic purposes as a historical use of cannabis. Cannabis may, in fact, have been the first cultivated plant. Cannabis Sativa seeds were recovered in Neolithic band ceramic in Thüringen, Germany. In addition to shamanic use, it was used for paper, textiles, food and medicine throughout human history.

The ancient emperor, Shen-Nung (c. 2700 B.C.), is known as the Father of Chinese medicine. he was concerned about the suffering of his subjects, and looked to plants for cures.  According to legend, Shen-Nung tried poisons and their antidotes to experience their effect and then compiled the medical encyclopedia called Pen Ts’ao. The Pen Ts’ao lists hundreds of drugs derived from vegetable, animal and mineral sources. Among these drugs is the plant cannabis, known as Ma. Ma was a unique plant because it was considered both feminine, or yin, and masculine, or yang. Realizing that the female plant produced more medicine, the Chinese cultivated it instead of the male plant. Ma was used to treat female troubles (menstruation), gout, rheumatism, malaria, beriberi, constipation and absentmindedness. A famous physician, Hua T’o (110 – 207 A.D.), was known to use Ma-Fei-San (hemp boiling compound), with wine to anesthetize his patients during surgical operations on the abdominal organs.

Many other cultures have a history of cannabis use. The Scythians, an Iranian tribe inhabiting large areas in the Eurasian steppes from the 7th century B.C. up until the 4th century A.D. used cannabis for fiber and oil. According to Herodotus, a Greek historian, there was evidence that they used it as a narcotic in their steam baths. In India, historical medical literature has some of the earliest accounts of its medicinal utilization. It was used in combination with henbane as an anesthetic for surgery. They also used cannabis preparations externally as antiseptics and analgesics.

In Hellenic and Arabic medicine, cannabis extracts were used for irrigation of diseases of the anus and as compresses for sore toenails. Arabic medical traditions used cannabis both externally and internally for a variety of conditions – for example, an ointment combined with fat was applied antiseptically. In Egypt, according to Rhamses’ papyrus, cannabis was used for the washing of sore eyes.

The medicinal properties of cannabis became part of Western medicine in the mid-19th century when cannabis strains from Egypt and India were imported by the French and British. Between 1840 and 1940, English, Irish, French and North American physicians and pharmacists used various cannabis preparations for pain relief and other conditions including malaria, rheumatism, migraine headaches, gout and glaucoma. Cannabis was in the Canadian pharmacopoeia until it was added to a list of restricted drugs in 1923 with its possession, cultivation and distribution becoming illegal.