A Brief History of Medical Marijuana

P.A. Murphy
A Brief History of Medical Marijuana

This week is all about the history and science behind the medical cannabis movement. Before the propaganda surrounding the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 turned popular opinion against it, the cannabis plant had a long and revered history as a source of food, fiber, and medicine. As early as 4000 BC, hemp had made its way into textiles, and cannabis was considered one the essential "five grains" farmed as major food crops in China. The first medicinal use of cannabis was recorded in 2737 BC by Emperor Shen Neng of China, and its use in medicine is still being recorded and studied to this day. It's one of the reasons classifying cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug is so baffling. Considering its long history of medicinal uses, listing cannabis as having "no accepted medical uses", and then restricting access so that further research into possible medical uses is virtually impossible, adds further insult to an already messy injury.

Thankfully, "virtually impossible" left just enough room for a few shimmers of possibility to wiggle through. A few key studies, done before cannabis fell under the Schedule 1 drug classification, led to a whole slew of researchers, scientists, and average folks (who believed in the potential of the plant) refusing to give up the notion that there was something medically beneficial in cannabis. Way back in 1895, T. Barlow Wood, W. T. Newton Spivey, and Thomas Hill Easterfield first identified and isolated cannabinol (CBN) in its pure form at the University of Cambridge, but its chemical structure wasn't discovered until 1930 by British chemist Robert Sidney Cahn at the Royal Institute of Chemistry. Then in 1940, Harvard graduate Roger Adams became the first person to successfully isolate cannabidiol (CBD) from the cannabis plant. By 1946, Dr. Walter S. Loewe was testing CBD on lab animals and documenting its effects.

In that same year, an Israeli chemist, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, identified CBD's three dimensional structure leading him to a decades long career in cannabis research at the University of Jerusalem. By 1964 he had mapped the molecular structure of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and isolated it as the cannabinoid responsible for the psychoactive component in cannabis, allowing CBD to finally be considered as a non-psychoactive medicine. His many years of research enabled him to help synthesize the first phytocannabinoids, isolate and describe the endocannabinoid anandamide (AEA), and publish hundreds of scientific articles on the subject.

Tragically, because of the criminalization of the cannabis plant and the rhetoric enshrining it, most of the scientific data didn't penetrate through the layers of stigma and stereotyping until the late 1970's. The Compassionate Investigational New Drug program came about because of Robert Randall's legal battle for the right to consume cannabis to treat his glaucoma before the condition could rob him of his eyesight. While the program did eventually allow for patients with serious medical conditions to receive a regular supply of cannabis from the government, the process for getting in the program was exceptionally long and complicated; only thirteen patients ended up participating between its inception in 1978 and when it closed its rolls to new patient applicants in 1992. February 1978 also saw New Mexico pass the first medical cannabis legislation with the Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act (also known as the Lynn Pierson Act) which was to provide a legal means for patients to use marijuana medicinally to relieve pain and suffering. Even with all that, the pervasive negative social and political opinion and legal prohibition of cannabis, marijuana, and all of their derivatives kept the scientific research into their medicinal properties slowed, stalled, or stopped here in the USA well into the late 1980's.

Then, in 1988, Bill Devane collaborated with Allyn Howlett's laboratory at St. Louis University which ended up providing conclusive evidence that cannabinoid receptors, a region in the body specifically designed to process and receive cannabinoids, did exist in mammals. A couple of years later in 1990, Lisa Matsuda and her team at the National Institute of Mental Health identified the THC-sensitive receptor (CB1 cannabinoid receptor) they found in rat brains. This research led to finding a second cannabinoid receptor (CB2 cannabinoid receptor) and the ability to clone both of them. Three years later, in 1993, the naturally occurring endocannabinoids anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) were identified. These internal cannabinoids were found to be the actual compounds our bodies specifically make for those cannabinoid receptors. By 2009, research begins to suggest endocannabinoid receptors may be among the oldest signaling molecules used by eukaryotic (complex) cells.

Soon after all that got figured out, the scientific research and data started flooding in from all over the world chopping away at those nasty layers with good old fashion factual data. And as it did, laws legalizing the medical use of cannabis in all of its forms began to slowly pass across the USA. More legalization led to more research and science backed data, which in turn led to even more states choosing medical marijuana legalization. They seem to like dancing with each other like that.

We now know humans have cannabinoid receptors throughout their bodies in quantities that outnumber all other known receptors. We also now know there are three types of cannabinoids- endogenous cannabinoids (endocannabinoids) which our bodies make on their own, phytocannabinoids which are cannabinoids made by plants (including but not exclusively cannabis) that our receptors will accept, and synthetic cannabinoids which are the pharmaceutical attempts to replicate phytocannabinoids. And, we are just beginning to learn about the complex science behind all of medicinal cannabis' beneficial effects.

That's why it's so important, for me at least, to cover the science behind all of this as thoroughly as possible. Scientific research and testing will help me, and other patients like me, make more informed choices about our medical marijuana purchases, moreover, it is, as it has always been, the key force behind medical cannabis legalization and deserves to be treated as such.

And I will leave things there for this week. Next week I will be diving into the various phytocannabinoids, mainly covering the ones found in cannabis but also a few rather common ones folks don't seem to know about. Until then, keep it Okie Tokie my friends.

-P.A. Murphy

Related Articles

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required