Medical Marijuana: A History
Inhaling to cure ailments is
a lot older than you might believe
Posted Sunday, Oct. 27, 2002; 10:31
Should Profs. Cheech and Chong ever receive university tenure
teaching the medical history of their favorite subject, the course pack
would be surprisingly thick. As early as 2737 B.C., the mystical emperor
Shen Neng of China was prescribing marijuana tea for the treatment of
gout, rheumatism, malaria and, oddly enough, poor memory. The drug's
popularity as a medicine spread throughout Asia, the Middle East and
down the eastern coast of Africa, and certain Hindu sects in India used
marijuana for religious purposes and stress relief. Ancient physicians
prescribed marijuana for everything from pain relief to earaches to
childbirth. Doctors also warned against overuse of marijuana, believing
that too much consumption caused impotence, blindness and "seeing
By the late 18th century, early editions of American medical journals
recommend hemp seeds and roots for the treatment of inflamed skin,
incontinence and venereal disease. Irish doctor William O'Shaughnessy
first popularized marijuana's medical use in England and America. As a
physician with the British East India Company, he found marijuana eased
the pain of rheumatism and was helpful against discomfort and nausea in
cases of rabies, cholera and tetanus.
The sea change in American attitudes toward pot came at the end of
the 19th century, when between two and five percent of the U.S.
population was unknowingly addicted to morphine, a popular secret
ingredient in patent medicines with colorful names like "The
People's Healing Liniment for Man or Beast" and "Dr. Fenner's
Golden Relief". To prevent more of the country from being washed
over with a morphine-induced Golden Relief, the government introduced
the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, creating the Food and Drug
Administration. While it didn't apply to marijuana and merely brought
the distribution of opium and morphine under doctors' control, the
regulation of chemical substances was a major shift in American drug
It wasn't until 1914 that drug use was defined as a crime, under the
Harrison Act. To get around states' rights issues, the act used a tax to
regulate opium- and coca-derived drugs: it levied a tax on non-medical
uses of the drugs that was much higher than the cost of the drugs
themselves, and punished anyone using the drugs without paying the tax.
By 1937, twenty-three states had outlawed marijuana: some to stop former
morphine addicts from taking up a new drug, and some as a backlash
against newly arrived Mexican immigrants, some of whom brought the drug
with them. Also in 1937, the federal government passed the Marihuana Tax
Act, which made nonmedical use of marijuana illegal. Only the birdseed
industry, which argued that hemp seeds gave birds' feathers a
particularly shiny gloss, was exempted from the act, and to this day
birdseed producers are allowed to use imported hemp seeds treated so
they don't sprout.
With an exception during World War II, when the government planted
huge hemp crops to supply naval rope needs and make up for Asian hemp
supplies controlled by the Japanese, marijuana was criminalized and
harsher penalties were applied. In the 1950s Congress passed the Boggs
Act and the Narcotics Control Act, which laid down mandatory sentences
for drug offenders, including marijuana possessors and distributors.
Despite an easing of marijuana laws in the 1970s, the Reagan
Administration's get-tough drug policies applied to marijuana as well.
Still, the long-term trend has been toward relaxation: Today, twelve
states have enacted some form of marijuana decriminalization.