A Brief History of Medical Marijuana

History of Medical Marijuana

The word marijuana is used to refer to the cannabis Sativa plant. The cannabis plant is indigenous to most of Asia. However, it is now grown in most parts of the world, including the USA. Cannabis holds hundreds of chemical substances. Most of these substances are known as cannabinoids. The cannabinoids are formed and stored in the plant’s trichomes. Trichomes are the tiny, clear hairs that stick out from the flower and leaf part of the plant. Cannabinoids have different effects on cell receptors in the human brain and body. They can alter how these cells behave and communicate with one another. Because of the several benefits marijuana for medical purposes has been gaining traction. So, it might be a good idea to look at the history of medical marijuana at length.

Medicinal/medical marijuana is a therapy that has attracted lots of national attention over the past years. The topic has been full of controversies; the legal, societal, and ethical implications related to marijuana’s use, safe supervision, packaging, and dispensing; serious health implications and mortality attributed to marijuana intoxication; and the therapeutic relief based on limited clinical research and data represent just a small fraction of the complexities associated with the use of marijuana for treatment.

Historical Use Of Marijuana

Marijuana has been used as a natural medicine since as early as 2900 B.C.E. The many forms including extracts and concentrates are now quite popular in terms of both medical and recreational.  However, the history of marijuana and its uses – either recreationally or as medicine – in the United States, is full of government corruption, misinformation, controversy, and systemic racism. As medical marijuana slowly made its way to the USA, politicians and intolerant media organizations moved to marginalize local minority communities by demonizing the plant with propaganda, smear campaigns, and sensationalist news that was based on opinions rather than facts. Even in the current context the marijuana plant has been and continues to be vilified, and painted negatively through legislation targeted at criminalizing America’s minority groups including immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community, and African Americans. The article will try to shed a bit more light on the history of medical marijuana in America. It will also highlight the growing use of marijuana in medicine. Read on for a brief history of medical marijuana in the United States.

In 1842, Sir William B. O’Shaughnessy, an Irish physician studying medical marijuana traveled to India. He came back with his research findings to the United States. Doctor O’Shaughnessy went on to recommended medical marijuana for mild pain management and relief. He also recommended the drug for anti-nausea treatment. Viewed as one of the early pioneers and researchers into medical marijuana, O’Shaughnessy was a vocal advocate for its use and adoption as medicine. Because of his extensive work with the drug and advocacy, marijuana was eventually added to the United States Pharmacopoeia in 1850. The U.S. Pharmacopoeia is an authorized medical publication to set standards for all medications and prescriptions that are sold over-the-counter. “Extractum Cannabis” was duly listed as a medical treatment for over 100 different conditions. These included alcoholism, cholera, menstrual cramps, and gout, just to name a few. Back then, the drug was widely accessible and available in many pharmacies and even some grocery outlets. Also, it had reasonably lower costs compared to other traditional drugs and one did not need a doctor’s prescription.

The first official use of “marijuana cigarettes” in the United States, was recorded in 1874. These were used by Mexican soldiers and immigrants. The ‘casual use of marijuana by Mexican immigrants living in America was held in contempt by William Randolph Hearst – a prejudiced newspaper publisher and business owner and of the Hearst Paper Manufacturing Division. Hearst stood to potentially lose billions of dollars as industrial hemp engineering grew in leaps and bounds. Hemp is a sustainable crop that can be produced from specific cannabis cultivars. It has many uses, such as fiber, paper, fuel, and food. The crop is relatively easy to produce and is more bioavailable than longstanding traditional timber and cotton. Hearst was worried that his timber business would crumble if hemp was found to be a better alternative. As such he took a negative stance against marijuana and all its associated by-products. Over the next few decades, Hearst – through his newspaper – amplified negative news articles demonizing cannabis.

By the end of the 19th century, the use of marijuana in medicine had considerably declined due to some reasons. These included challenges in controlling dosages and the sharp rise in popularity of synthetic and other opium-derived drugs.

history of medical marijuana

Marijuana Tax Act

The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was the first piece of federal legislation in the U.S. to criminalize the use and possession of marijuana across the whole nation. This law imposed an excise tax on all sales, possession, and/or transfer of all hemp products. This effectively criminalized all but industrial and licensed uses of marijuana and its by-products.

The use of marijuana in medicine ultimately declined after this law came into place. The main purpose of the law was to limit all non-medical uses of marijuana. However, it also had negative effects on the research surrounding the drug. This severely crippled the medical use of the drug. The new fees and regulatory requirements needed were a significant burden on doctors and researchers. Because of this red tape, the American Medical Association protested against the Marijuana Tax Act, but no positive outcome was experienced.

The first person to be prosecuted under this law was a fifty-eight-year-old farmer named Samuel Caldwell. Caldwell was prosecuted for the illegal possession and distribution of marijuana on October 2, 1937. Ironically, he was arrested just a day after the Act came into effect. Mr. Caldwell was tried and sentenced to four years of hard labor.

On the industrial front, marijuana continued to flourish. The plant continued to be cultivated locally in the United States throughout World War II. Domestic cultivation was even more encouraged after the Philippines—which was a major source of imported hemp fiber— was invaded and fell to Japanese forces. The last known U.S. hemp fields were grown in 1957 in Wisconsin. Medical professionals continued with their research into how the drug could be harnessed for widespread medical use.

Despite its recreational ban, the use of marijuana continued to grow. Local media also helped with this push, at a time when the US population was experimenting with other recreational drugs. It proved to be quite popular amongst youths for its mellow yet strong effects.

Controlled Substances Act of 1970

As part of the “War on Drugs” campaign, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, was signed into law by President Richard Nixon. This new law act replaced the initial Marijuana Tax Act. It moved to list marijuana as a Schedule I drug—along with other drugs such as heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. This effectively meant that the drug could not be prescribed for medical uses as it had a high potential for abuse by users. A new wave of propaganda against marijuana began. The drug was identified in several anti-drug programs at the time, such as D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) as a “gateway drug.”

A 1972 report released by the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse (also known as the Shafer Commission) titled “Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding” recommended “partial prohibition” and less stiff penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. President Nixon and other government officials, however, did not pay attention to the report’s findings and recommendations.

The Legalization of Marijuana for Medical Use

California, with the Compassionate Use Act of 1996, was the first state in the USA to legalize marijuana for medicinal use. This use, however, was only for patients who suffered from severe or chronic illnesses. This began a move by other states to legalize the medical use of marijuana. To date, Washington D.C., 29 other states, and the U.S. territories of Guam and Puerto Rico permit the use of marijuana for limited medical purposes.

On the recreational side, as of June 2019, eleven states including Washington, D.C., have legalized the use of marijuana for recreational purposes. Colorado and Washington were the first states to take that bold step in 2012. Adults can now ‘light it up’ without the need for a doctor’s prescription in Alaska, California, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Vermont, and Oregon.

Final Thoughts

Marijuana is still illegal under USA federal law, however. However, the evolving and ever-changing legal status of marijuana is a subject of continuing controversy in the United States and the world all over. As a Schedule, I controlled drug marijuana has no medicinal use, a high abuse potential, concerns for user dependence, and lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision. The emergence of interest in using marijuana for medicinal purposes is thought by the public to be a side effect of the opioid abuse epidemic.

The public perception around the use of medical marijuana points to the fact that this plant-based source of relief is viewed rather positively and not much different than a botanical drug product or supplement that is used for health purposes or relief of pain in the case of chronic illnesses; if the disease persists. Like other herbal preparations or enhancements, however, medicinal marijuana may similarly pose various health risks linked with its use, including impairing, psychoactive and intoxicating effects, which have not been completely explained through clinical trials.

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