Historical Cannabis Use in China

Hemp has a long history in China. At one point it was so prized that the Chinese called their country “the land of mulberry and hemp.” Cannabis was a symbol of power over evil and in emperor Shen Nung’s pharmacopoeia it was called the “liberator of sin.” The Chinese believed that the legendary Shen Nung first taught the cultivation of hemp in the 28th century B.C. Shen Nung is credited with developing the sciences of medicine from the curative power of plants. So highly regarded was Shen Nung that he was deified and today he is regarded as the Father of Chinese medicine.

A Chinese Taoist priest wrote in the fifth century B.C. that cannabis was used in combination with Ginseng to set forward time in order to reveal future events. It is recorded that the Taoists recommended the addition of cannabis to their incense burners in the 1st century A.D. and that the effects thus produced were highly regarded as a means of achieving immortality. In the early Chinese Taoist ritual, the fumes and odors of incense burners were said to have produced a mystic exaltation and contribution to well being.

The Therapeutic Potential of Cannabis

While research in the United States has been sharply restricted by the federal prohibition on cannabis in the past, recent discoveries have increased interest among scientists in the more than 100 different cannabinoids so far identified in the cannabis plant. The International Cannabinoid Research Society (ICRS) was formally incorporated as a scientific research organization in 1991, and since its incorporation the membership has more than tripled. The International Association for Cannabis as Medicine (IACM), founded in 2000, publishes a bi-weekly newsletter and holds a bi-annual symposium to highlight emerging clinical research concerning cannabis therapeutics. The University of California established the Center for Medical Cannabis Research (CMCR) in 2001 to conduct scientific studies to ascertain the general medical safety and efficacy of cannabis products and examine alternative forms of cannabis administration. In 2010, the CMCR issued a report on the 14 clinical studies it has conducted, most of which were FDA-approved, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical studies that have demonstrated that cannabis can control pain, in some cases better than the available alternatives.

To date, more than 15,000 modern peer-reviewed scientific articles on the chemistry and pharmacology of cannabis and cannabinoids have been published, as well as more than 2,000 articles on the body’s natural endocannabinoids. In recent years, more placebo-controlled human trials have also been conducted.

A 2009 review of clinical studies conducted over a 38-year period, found that “nearly all of the 33 published controlled clinical trials conducted in the United States have shown significant and measurable benefits in subjects receiving the treatment.” The review’s authors note that cannabinoids have the capacity for analgesia through neuromodulation in ascending and descending pain pathways, neuroprotection, and anti-inflammatory mechanisms—all of which indicates that the cannabinoids found in cannabis have applications in managing chronic pain, muscle spasticity, cachexia, and other debilitating conditions.

Currently, cannabis is most often recommended as complementary or adjunct medicine. But there is a substantial consensus among experts in the relevant disciplines, including the American College of Physicians, that cannabis and cannabis-based medicines have therapeutic properties that could potentially treat a variety of serious and chronic illness.