One night in 1839 at the College Hospital of Calcutta, India, a young Irish doctor, William O’Shaughnessy, carefully administered “two grains [of cannabis] dissolved in a little spirit” to a patient suffering from tetanus.
5 days previous the patient had sought help from a folk healer to cure his dysentery. The healer applied some still-burning charcoal and tobacco from a hookah to the man’s wrist, leaving him with an “abominably fetid” open sore – and an agonizing case of ‘lock-jaw’ or tetanus. Large doses of opiates offered him no relief, but the “hemp resin” O’Shaughnessy offered finally did.
To make the case for cannabis as a medicine, most advocates refer to the herb’s ancient past as a healing substance.
But in established Western medical practice, the glory age of cannabis as medicine was relatively short – a 60-year period that spanned the Penny Dreadful era of 19th century England – and kicked off by none other than Dr. O’Shaughnessy.
After touting the plant’s powers to British pharmacists upon his return to England in 1842, commercial formulations of cannabis – such as cannabis tincture – began appearing in drugstores. Queen Victoria herself didn’t just “lie back and think of England” when afflicted with PMS – she procured a little cannabis from her court physician.
Over the next few decades the medical literature in both England and America received more than 100 accounts from physicians lauding cannabis’ effect on patients suffering from obstetric, neurological, psychological, and chronic illnesses.
But two coeval inventions began to overtake marijuana’s popularity in the medical community:
The first was that of the hypodermic syringe in 1850, which allowed physicians to inject water-soluble opiates for instant and measurable pain relief.
And in the 1890’s, aspirin, itself a synthetic derivative of the meadowsweet shrub, appeared on the market – along with a few very potent barbiturates.
Cannabis is fat-soluble (therefore not injectable) and its potency and effects, while never harmful, were considered more volatile than those delivered by the new little white pills.
Though it shared none of the dangerous side effects of its synthetic cousins, cannabis’ use as part of the National Pharmacopeia was by the turn of the 20th century, in rapid decline.
Jump-cut to post-prohibition 2015, and we find ourselves witnesses of a long-suppressed and multifaceted renaissance of cannabis as medicine – in both scientific and lay circles.
Cannabis is now receiving a slow trickle of funding for medical research. But as an additional resource, a community of individuals in search of alternative means of healing have provided over the years thousands of anecdotal accounts on the efficacy of cannabis as medicine.
The following are a few examples of where science and personal medicine meet: 3 common uses for cannabis employed by our ancestors that people still find effective today:
The Old: The Chinese Materia Medica published in 1911 recommends cannabis as a ‘heat clearing herb,’ as does the 18th Century New English Dispensatory, which prescribes applying hemp roots to inflamed skin.
The New: Though part of the body’s natural immune response on a cellular level to a variety of irritants, chronic inflammation can become the root cause of a constellation of illnesses – cirrhosis, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis to name a few – and can also accelerate visible aging of the skin through puffiness and wrinkles.
While THC is known to have anti-inflammatory properties, researchers have only recently discovered that another cannabinoid, beta-caryophyllene, or (E)-BCP, helps to fight inflammation without the psychoactive effects of THC.
(E)-BCP, present in common foods such as oregano, cinnamon, pepper, and carrots, is found in more concentrated doses in the leaves and flowers of cannabis – as much as 35%, giving them a super-charge of anti-inflammatory power.
The Old: In 1860 Dr. R.R. M’Meens praised Indian Hemp’s ‘hypnotic’ (sleep inducing) gifts as superior to those of opium, “The whole effect being less violent, and producing more natural sleep without interfering with the actions of the internal organs.” And in 1890 his colleague, British physician J.R. Reynolds, said that he had prescribed hemp for senile insomnia, as it required no increase in dosage over months and years.
The New: Anecdotal evidence suggests that indica dominant varieties will help you fall – and stay – asleep. Anxiety is often an underlying cause of insomnia and recent research reveals that endocannabinoids – the body’s system for receiving and ‘interlocking’ with the cannabinoids in marijuana – plays a role in tempering the racing thoughts and free-floating fear that characterize anxiety-induced insomnia. Most recommend a Goldilocks approach to dosage – not so small that it doesn’t knock you out, or so great that you wake up high. (Try this recipe for hot canna-milk before bed.)
The Old: Common, excruciating, and maddeningly unresponsive to many forms of treatment, migraines, it seems are not a modern phenom. Dr. J.B. Mattison called migraines ‘the opprobrium of the healing art.’ He did, however, strongly recommend cannabis as its ‘most satisfactory’ remedy. The New: Migraine is more than a headache; it’s a disorienting, full-body, nausea-inducing ride. Cannabis, because it affects serotonin and dopamine receptors, and has a proven anti-inflammatory capacity, can act on multiple aspects of migraine. The cannabinoids and essential oils in the plant work as both a preventive agent and a potent pain-killer.
We are a public hungry for sanctioned, rigorous and well-funded research on the healing capacities of the cannabis plant. That said, the empiric eye of 19th century doctors – and the thousands of patients documenting their relief ever since – do serve as a persuasive primary source for medical cannabis.
Dr J.B. Mattison, writing of medical marijuana at the end of its first incarnation in Western medicine noted that “Young doctors rarely prescribe it,” opting instead for a dose of hypodermically delivered morphine. His advice?
“Steer clear of narcotic shoals on which many a patient has gone a-wreck. Indian Hemp…will, at times, fail. So do other drugs. But the many cases in which it acts well entitle it to a large and lasting confidence.”