Hemp has been helping people heal for millennia.
Like with many plants, we can’t be sure when people first began experimenting with hemp for medicinal purposes. That said, Carl Sagan believed hemp was likely one of the first crops cultivated.
Most plants are used first in folk remedies. These aren’t necessarily written down for a long time, passing down via oral traditions. There is a good chance that hemp was used medicinally long before the effects were recorded.
One thing to keep in mind as you read this is that there isn’t necessarily a lot of distinction between hemp and marijuana in historical texts. What is clear, though, is the long history of using hemp for multiple purposes, researching its effectiveness on a variety of symptoms and maladies. While we’ve lost a lot of this knowledge due to research restrictions and the passage of time, we are finally beginning to reclaim and rediscover new things about hemp every day.
Healing hemp in ancient times
Ancient China is where we first encounter medicinal use of hemp. From around 6000 BCE on, hemp was used in tools, clothing, shoes, and food.
It wasn’t until 2737 BCE that there is written evidence of hemp as medicine. Emperor Shen-Nung developed topical hemp oils and teas to aid in pain relief. He wrote his findings in the first editions of the Pen Ts’ao Ching. Later on, other pharmacopoeias would list the medicinal effects of flowers, leaves, and seeds of the cannabis plant. Hua Tuo was the first person on record to use cannabis as an anesthetic in the second century. He notes that this plant can also aid in the treatment of blood clots, tapeworms, and hair loss.The Romans had a long history of hemp use. Circa 77 AD, Pliny the Elder noted how helpful hemp was for the extraction of insects from ears and for pain relief. However, he made sure to note excessive use can negatively affect sexual performance. Around the same time, Disocorides wrote a pharmacopeia listing the medical benefits of hemp. These include assisting with ear pain, stomach-related issues, and burns. By 200 AD, Galen mentions again the ability of hemp to relieve pain, but notes that it can cause stomach pain, headaches, and dehydration.
Cannabis use was popular among many people in Middle Eastern regions, especially due to the prohibition on alcohol from Islam. With the abundance of the plant, it’s no surprise that physicians knew hemp well. They were aware of and noted the many benefits of the plant — it was found to be anti-inflammatory, pain relieving, anti-emetic, anti-epileptic, diuretic, and more.
These are far from the only regions known to utilize hemp plants medicinally. In India, the Atharvaveda lists hemp as a sacred grass. They’ve used pastes, drinks, and parts of the plant both medicinally and recreationally for centuries. Hemp has been found buried with Ancient Greeks. Egyptians wrote about using hemp in an eyewash in the Ramesseum III Papyri. Later writing would highlight both pain relief and inflammation.
Across regions and history, one thing seems clear — hemp was being used for pain relief.
Hemp medicine in the Western World
Hemp spread across the world through travel and use as fibers. Across Europe, hemp was used to treat tumors and coughs — as well as recreationally. By the sixteenth century, hemp was one of the main crops grown in England. In 1533, Henry VIII commanded farmers to grow hemp or face a fine. During this century, physicians Garcia de Orta and Li Shih-Chen discovered new uses for the plant — to improve appetite and as an antibiotic, respectively.
By the seventeenth century, hemp had made it to North America. It was grown in Jamestown and other colonies for use in clothing, building materials, and sails. In 1619, the Virginia Assembly passed a familiar law mandating each farmer to grow hemp. Similar laws would be passed in Massachusetts and Connecticut, with the plant being accepted as legal tender in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.
During this time, Robert Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy” recommends hemp use to improve and treat mental health disorders. In the eighteenth century, two additional pharmacopoeias listed hemp’s many medicinal properties. “The New England Dispensatory” and “Edinburgh New Dispensatory” list hemp as a treatment for pain and skin inflammation, and cough respectively.
Despite hemp’s listing in many medical texts, one man is often credited as the main person to popularize the plant in the West — W.B. O’Shaughnessy. As an surgeon and professor at the Medical College of Calcutta in the 1800s, the Irish O’Shaughnessy was conducting experiments about cannabis indica on animals, children, and adults. He noted the analgesic effects in addition to its ability to relax muscles. Patients with rheumatic diseases, cholera, tetanus, and hydrophobia were all treated with hemp under his care. While it wasn’t necessarily a true treatment for some of these conditions, O’Shaughnessy noted it offered hope and removed some of the negative emotional effects of illness.
Just before the Civil War, the third edition of the U,S. pharmacopeia lists hemp extract. The U.S. Dispensatory does as well, adding medical cannabis. It was known to be intoxicating, yes, but also pain relieving and sleep inducing. Hemp was recommended for a variety of health issues from neuralgia and convulsions to depression and gout. At the end of the nineteenth century, Dr. JR Reynolds’ research showed improvement in tics, migraines, asthma, and dysmenorrhea.
At the turn of the century, hemp’s use medicinally declined thanks to the introduction of opiates and the development of the syringe. Still, medications like Chlorodyne — a cannabis and morphine combination to treat stomach issues — grew in popularity. On top of that, folk remedies and snake oil cures often included cannabis in addition to other drugs and medications.
When the war on drugs began, cannabis was prohibited, leaving patients using it for medical reasons often out of luck. In the 1970s, extracts and synthetic cannabis drugs were developed to help treat nausea associated with chemotherapy use for cancer and autoimmune conditions. Others were used to treat glaucoma as well. During this decade, the U.S. saw the beginnings of medical marijuana legalization ideals in places like New Orleans and New Mexico. While these programs helped patients with glaucoma, cancer, and other conditions, they were often short-lived due to DEA restrictions.
It wasn’t until 1996 that California would legalize medical marijuana for a number of conditions including HIV/AIDS and cancer. Arizona followed quickly. By the early 2000s, Canada legalized MMJ as well. Although research on hemp, cannabis, and marijuana is incredibly restricted in many places, the last decade has seen an increase in medications using these plants. One great example is Nabiximols (or Sativex), a THC/CBD spray used to help ease multiple sclerosis symptoms.
Reefer madness and the war on drugs hurt cannabis research
The twentieth century quickly saw changes in attitude towards cannabis, from intrigued to fearful. The Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 began to crack down on cannabis use by imposing restrictions on foreign and interstate traffic. Down the line, this law would also create the FDA. By 1913, California and other states began to prohibit the use of cannabis, often targeting Mexican immigrants in raids use the 1906 act.
The 1914 Harrison Act and the media — like the infamous film “Reefer Madness” — helped to turn much of the public against cannabis. The 1937 Marijuana Tax Act classified hemp and marijuana as the same thing, something that still creates roadblocks today. By this time, marijuana was banned in over twenty states. During World War II, though, regulation of these laws was lessened to aid in the production of hemp materials for the war effort.
By 1970, hemp and marijuana cultivation was banned under the Controlled Substances Act. States could allow cultivation of industrial hemp but, like dispensaries in weed-legal states today, farms could be raided by the DEA. Cannabis was labeled as a Schedule 1 drug, which has heavily restricted research over the last nearly fifty years.
Rediscovering the healing power of hemp
Because of the intense limitations posed by the war on drugs, research on cannabis has been conducted at only a few universities across the United States. There are strict rules on who can conduct the research, which funding they can use, and even what forms of cannabis are studied. Successful studies include the effects of cannabis on spinal cord injury pain, HIV neuropathy, MS spasticity, and sleep.
In 2014, President Obama signed the Farm Bill which helped eliminate some of the issues around growing hemp so that, currently, 30 states allow industrial hemp cultivation. That number looks to be growing, too.
This is a great thing for people who rely on CBD to treat their health issues. CBD research has been going on for over two decades. It’s been shown to have incredible effects on seizures, pain, anxiety, inflammation, insomnia, fibromyalgia, cancer, Crohn’s disease, PTSD, and more. There are currently studies being done on CBD’s effects on Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke, and MS.
Unfortunately for people living with chronic conditions, past and current restrictions on hemp research mean a delay in relief of their symptoms. We have lost a lot of knowledge and information about hemp’s medicinal properties over the years. Many have missed out on the potential benefits hemp could bring them due to restrictions, laws, and stigma.
The good news, though, is that we are starting to rediscover this data and improve our knowledge about hemp’s medical properties.