Cannabis through history

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The history of cannabis from imperial China to medieval Persia and its introduction into modern Western medicine


From imperial China to medieval Persia, via its introduction into modern Western medicine, here is a short summary of the long history of cannabis and humanity.  

Humans have been using cannabis for at least six millennia. Archaeologists have found the first evidence of its cultivation in China. In 4000 BC, in the village of Pan-p'o, cannabis was used to produce textiles, rope, paper and oil. In 2727 BC, it first appeared in a Chinese pharmacopoeia text, initiated by the emperor Shen Nong. The latter is recognised as one of the fathers of Chinese medicine, and wrote the "Treatise of Medicinal Herbs" (Pen Tsao King) in which he references more than 365 natural remedies.

Cannabis conquers the world

There are numerous written sources attesting to the medicinal, religious and/or recreational use of cannabis throughout history. From antiquity to the Middle Ages, the plant was used by the Assyrians, in the Roman Empire, in Egypt, among the Persians, in the Arabian Peninsula, etc. In 1500, with the Spanish conquest and the slave trade, cannabis was introduced into South America.

Cannabis in Western medicine

Following their travels and conquests in the Indies, English and Irish doctors brought cannabis back to their countries.

In 1839, an Irish physician, William Brooke O'Shaughnessy, praised the analgesic and sedative properties of cannabis in a scientific publication. His work, confirmed by his successors, introduced the therapeutic use of cannabis into modern Western medicine. Queen Victoria even described cannabis as one of her "most valuable medicines" in 1890.

French doctors would bring the cannabis plant back from Egypt. The most notable doctor to use it was undoubtedly Jacques-Joseph Moreau, who used it as a sedative/antalgic for his psychiatric patients, even going so far as to create the hashishin club in 1844.

Medicinal cannabis then experienced a certain golden age. Between 1840 and 1920, it became part of the Western pharmacopoeia and the major laboratories all had cannabis oil in their product portfolio. 

Mc Kesson & Robbins Cannabis Oil

Between decline and success

At the beginning of the 20th century, however, the use of medicinal cannabis declined. This was due to the invention of vaccines, synthetic analgesics and hypodermic syringes, used to inject opiates (morphine). And above all, the arrival of the first blockbuster: aspirin.

On the other hand, recreational use is increasing. The American authorities were so worried that they started a real propaganda campaign against the plant. Cannabis was removed from the American pharmacopoeia in 1941. European countries followed this decision in the early 1950s.

While prohibition dealt a heavy blow to medical use and research on cannabis, it had little effect on its recreational use! At the end of the 1960s, at the height of the hippie craze, cannabis consumption exploded...

Scientific discoveries

In 1964, Raphael Mechoulam and his team identified the main psychotropic substance in cannabis: delta-9-tetra-hydrocannabinol (THC). However, it was not until some thirty years later that we gained a better understanding of how this cannabinoid acts on the body.

3 major discoveries will strongly boost the interest of the scientific community in cannabis:  

- In 1988, the first cannabinoid receptor was identified.

- In 1993, a second cannabinoid receptor was identified.

- At the same time, researchers discovered the first endocannabinoid, anandamide. A cannabinoid naturally produced by our body.

These findings establish the existence of what scientists now call the endocannabinoid system.  

The return to favour of medical cannabis

In the last 20 years, several countries have gone backwards in terms of legislation. Canada was the first to allow access to medical cannabis for certain categories of patients. Several national governments and US states have also (re)authorised this therapeutic use.

Various European countries (Netherlands, Germany, Denmark) have followed suit. There is no doubt that these advances will help relieve certain patients in certain pathologies. And that science will continue to investigate this amazing plant!


Hand A. et al, 'History of medicalcannabis' in J Pain Manage, 2016.

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