Use of cannabinoids to treat disease over time

The use of cannabis to treat diseases has long been considered an absolute taboo, despite its historical records dating back to before the common era. This deprives patients worldwide of its benefits as well as prevents medical and scientific communities from further studying the therapeutic potential of the plant chemical compounds.

Many factors hindered this process: the criminalization of the recreational use of cannabis; moral, religious, and social judgment; political and ideological agendas in some countries; and the economic interests of the pharmaceutical industry, which have patent-based business models.

At the beginning of the 21 st century, with the rise of globalization and the easy exchange of information, successful cases of treatment in countries with more flexible laws concerning the use of cannabinoid-based pharmaceuticals motivated patients, families, and doctors to coordinate and push governments to review laws. This movement is strong in Latin American countries.

See highlights of the history of the use of cannabinoids to treat diseases.

B.C.: widely used

Some records of the medicinal use of cannabis date back to before the common era. Chinese emperor Shennong prescribed cannabis tea for several reasons, including the treatment of gout, rheumatism, malaria, and poor memory. Other records are found in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East prescribing the use of the plant for many purposes, ranging from earaches to labor pains.

19 th century: cannabis arrives in Europe

Cannabis is not a native European plant. One of the main precursors of cannabis in the Old World is Irish physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, who learned about the plant while working in India in 1833. According to records, a woman knocked on O’Shaughnessy’s door, seeking a solution to her daughter’s constant seizures. The doctor tried traditional medical resources available at the time, such as opium and leeches, but it all was in vain. Then, he took a chance on a multipurpose drug used by the local population and dripped a few drops of a cannabis tincture under the child’s tongue and watched the attacks cease quickly.

Surprised by that effect, O’Shaughnessy devoted himself to studying the effects of various parts of the plant. Early studies by the Irish doctor served as the foundation for the understanding of the functions of different cannabis components, such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of the plant, and cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive component.

During these investigations, O’Shaughnessy discovered that cannabis was an extremely potent drug to treat diseases such as rabies, rheumatism, childhood seizures and cholera. His studies were published in The Provincial Medical and the Surgical Journal (which would later become the British Medical Journal). This happened long before cannabis became popular as a painkiller in the UK. Even Queen Victoria’s private physician, JR Reynolds, is said to have prescribed cannabis to relieve menstrual cramps and some postpartum symptoms.

Between the 19 th and early 20 th centuries, medical cannabis was also widely used in the United States and was first reported in the United States Pharmacopeia (a compendium of drug information in the country) in 1850.

20 th century: the criminalization of cannabis

Cannabis disapproval started in the early 20 th century. In the United States, there was strong racist propaganda associating cannabis use with illegal Mexican, African American, and Hispanic immigrants, which stirred up public opinion and contributed to the general criminalization of the plant. Restrictions on cannabis increased worldwide while the notion that its use is an evil and a public health problem. In 1961, during a convention, the United Nations determined that drugs were bad for human health and well-being, thus an universal action was needed to ban their use. This undermines studies and hinders patients’ access to cannabis-based pharmaceuticals.

21 st century: time to review cannabis legislation

Some studies continue to be developed even under restriction. Gradually, some countries soften their cannabis laws. Success stories with the use of medical cannabis have come to the fore and inspire patients and families around the world who are seeking life, relief, and well-being. Such coordinated groups become essential for the dissemination of information and increased pressure on governments to make their legislation more flexible.

Learn more about laws in Latin American countries on the use of cannabinoids to treat diseases