As marijuana becomes legalized for medicinal uses in more states with each election cycle (now up to 33), it’s time to wonder about its potential as a health remedy.
Does cannabis have the ability to change the world of medicine?
That’s the question we’re aiming to answer here in this post and one that certainly has opinions on both sides of the argument. We’re going to look at it in five stages:
- The history of cannabis/marijuana use in medicine before it was made illegal.
- The rise of pharmaceuticals and their impact.
- Current cannabis and CBD uses (natural and synthetic).
- The growing popularity of medical marijuana
- The future of cannabis, CBD, and plant medicine.
Let’s dive right in first with a look at the long history of using cannabis as medicine.
1. The History of Cannabis/Marijuana Use in Medicine
The first documented use of marijuana for medicinal purposes goes back quite a ways — we’re talking circa 2900 BC — when it was referenced as a popular medicine “that possessed both yin and yang” by Chinese Emperor, Fu Xi. While its earliest roots may be in China, marijuana seems to have spread to other parts of the world over time.
Cannabis even appears in the Book of Exodus in the Holy Bible as part of the holy anointing oil passed from God to Moses. Cannabis was used to treat glaucoma in ancient Egypt, as a cure for leprosy in India, and to reduce inflammation in ancient Greece. Marijuana was even used by Muslim doctors to reduce sexuality, to treat nausea in 16th-century China, and to treat various maladies in the Middle Ages.
Hemp was a fixture with other important figures as well.
It was a popular crop brought to America by the Jamestown settlers and was even grown by Founding Fathers George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. Napoleon helped it gain more notice in Europe during his invasion of Egypt. He brought along a scientific exploration team who studied cannabis plants for its pain-relieving and sedative effects back in France.
Marijuana emerged as mainstream medicine in the West in the 1840s when French psychiatrist, Jacques-Joseph Moreau, found that marijuana suppressed headaches, increased appetite, and helped people sleep. Marijuana entered the United States Pharmacopeia in 1850, which listed it as an over-the-counter treatment for numerous ailments. That’s right — marijuana used to be prescribed as medicine right here in the U.S. — the precedent exists!
But then on June 30, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Food and Drugs act, which began regulation on product labeling instead of pre-market approval, making it harder for marijuana medications to reach stores. The prohibitionist era followed soon after, and states began banning cannabis one by one over the coming years.
However, marijuana was still prevalent as an analgesic, antispasmodic, and a sedative. In the 1930s, the Bureau of Narcotics urged federal action to control “widespread use” of marijuana, and later the Marihuana Tax Act led to a decline in marijuana prescriptions. This act described marijuana as “a vice, with dire mental and moral changes among users."
The full historical timeline of medical marijuana is quite fascinating and worth a read if you have the time.
2. The Rise & Impact of Pharmaceuticals
By the end of 1936, all 48 states had enacted laws to regulate marijuana. As marijuana use declined in medicine, it was replaced by the likes of aspirin, morphine, and other opium-derived drugs, mainly in the treatment of pain.
Pharmaceuticals actually can be traced back about a hundred years prior, when two German immigrants founded Pfizer in 1849. Their painkiller and antiseptic products skyrocketed during the American Civil War, during which a commander named Colonel Eli Lilly served in the Union army. Lilly was himself a trained pharmaceutical chemist, and set up his pharmaceutical business in 1876.
Around the same time the Bayer company trademarked and mass-produced aspirin, insulin and penicillin also emerged in medicine. No drug in the history of medicine has done greater good than penicillin, which saved thousands of lives during World War II. But other problems began to emerge.
This mass-production marked a new way the pharmaceutical industry operated. Soon enough, we had pills for everything. Many did indeed help with the ailments they were prescribed to treat, while others did and have done nothing more than mask symptoms, while bringing along their own alarming set of side effects. This is where we find ourselves today — in the midst of America’s opioid crisis.
Big Pharma still dominates the American (and worldwide) medical landscape, although expensive lawsuits are starting to shift the paradigm and provide an opportunity on the market. Enter cannabis and CBD.
3. Current Uses of Cannabis & CBD
Cannabis and cannabinoids are currently in wide use for a variety of conditions.
Here’s a short list:
- Chronic Pain
- Appetite and Weight Loss
- Helping To Decrease Opioid Use
- HIV/AIDS Symptoms
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Movement Disorders Due to Tourette Syndrome
- Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms
- Nausea and Vomiting Related to Cancer Chemotherapy
- Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Sleep Problems
Perhaps the most promising current cannabinoid treatment is its effectiveness against childhood epilepsy syndromes, such as Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS). These conditions typically don’t respond to anti-seizure medications. The FDA recently approved the first-ever cannabis-derived medicine for these conditions, Epidiolex, which contains CBD.
Two other cannabinoids approved by the FDA include Marinol and Syndros. Each contains dronabinol (synthetic THC), and Cesamet contains nabilone (a synthetic substance similar to THC). Dronabinol and nabilone are used to treat nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy. Dronabinol has also been prescribed to treat loss of appetite and weight loss in people with HIV/AIDS.
As of this writing, the FDA has not yet approved the cannabis plant for any medical use.
CBD and other cannabinoids aren’t without their own potential risks, but they pale in comparison to opioids, and no person has ever overdosed from cannabis or its related products. Recent FDA restrictions haven’t made things any easier for those in the CBD world, but you can’t turn far in many parts of the country without seeing a CBD-related product.
4. The Growing Popularity of Medical Marijuana
While two-thirds of Americans support the legalization of marijuana, the federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act. This means that by definition of the Act, marijuana has no medical value and a high potential for abuse.
Large-scale trials will be required to prove to the government that cannabis has real medicinal value, but it has long been difficult to conduct such studies because of long periods of prohibition (see above), and the need for federal government approval, which it is reluctant to give. This represents a bit of a catch-22 — the government wants scientific proof but has restrictions in place that make it difficult to conduct research.
Therefore, getting the federal government to acknowledge that marijuana has medical value is the first step to getting restrictions on research lifted. Then, it would need to push for marijuana to be reclassified as a Schedule 2 substance. This would make large-scale research possible.
5. What Does the Future Look Like for Cannabis and CBD in Medicine?
It remains to be seen, but CBD and other cannabinoid-based pharmaceuticals may represent the future of medical cannabis. With a growing number of studies ongoing for CBD and the many other cannabinoids, there may be many more possible applications for medical cannabinoids that we don’t yet know about.
Many countries have legalized marijuana and its derivatives, and the U.S. is making slow progress toward that goal. We are witnessing a more tolerant attitude toward cannabis emerge worldwide, and more physicians are viewing CBD as a valid alternative for relief and pain for a variety of ailments.
The goal is a world where we can use cannabis, CBD, and plant medicine as the first option to prevent health issues. Funding and large-scale studies are needed to isolate cannabinoids for specific uses. This is a much better option than continuing the widespread use of highly-addictive opioids and other pharmaceuticals that only mask symptoms.
As you can see, cannabis has been used for thousands of years as a medical treatment. It has only been in recent times that harsh restrictions, which were likely misguided in the first place, have limited its capacity to treat many health conditions. In that time, more harmful pharmaceuticals and opioids have filled the gap, creating bigger problems than they aimed to solve while costing Americans billions.
A plant-based solution with cannabis and CBD could be on the horizon, but changes will need to be made. Minds need to be changed for a real shift in modern medicine to occur.