Cannabis: History and the Making of a Dangerous Drug

Professor Lester Grinspoon of Harvard Medical School, recent author of Marihuana Reconsidered and Marihuana the Forbidden Medicine, explained the history of Cannabis and how it became known as a ‘dangerous drug’. Professor Grinspoon’s interest in Cannabis was initially in exposing and documenting its dangers, however he soon realised he too had been misinformed.

Grinspoon referenced a 1967 study that found there is little empirical evidence to support Cannabis prohibition. Cannabis medicines have been used for over 10 000 years. It was brought to the attention of the West when it was re-introduced as a medicine from India into England as an anaesthetic, muscle relaxant and insomnia treatment in 1839. Queen Victoria actually used Cannabis to treat her premenstrual cramps.

Interestingly, Cannabis was included in the oldest known copy of a pharmacopoeia, dated somewhere between 1100 and 1700 BC. A pharmacopoeia is a book containing a list of medicinal drugs, their effects and directions for use.

By 1850 Cannabis was widely distributed via pharmacies and chemists throughout the UK, USA and Europe. Patent Medicines listed Cannabis as the 3rd most commonly used medicine before the invention of Aspirin. Sir William Osler said in 1898 that Cannabis was the best treatment for migraines and during the 1920’s Cannabis cigarettes, such as Cannadonna & Cigarettes De Joy sold in Australia, were used for their bronchodilator and anti-inflammatory effects to treat asthma. However, it is now known that smoking Cannabis only unlocks about 13% of its full medicinal effects, so other administration methods are best. At that time three million prescriptions containing Cannabis, and other over-the-counter Cannabis medications, were sold per year in the USA.

This was all brought to an end by a combination of events. Those speaking at the Symposium mainly focused on the effects of The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 (USA). However, for a richer explanation of the history of Cannabis and the reasons for its prohibition, watch documentaries such as ‘Cannabis Science’ and ‘Grass: The History of Marijuana Prohibition in the USA’. The Tax Act made medical use difficult because of all the newly required paper work required to prescribe Cannabis. Couple this with the rise of easy-to-prescribe modern pharmaceuticals and Cannabis fell into decline. It was officially taken out of the US pharmacopoeia in 1941.

Throughout the rest of the century propaganda ran wild linking ‘marijuana’ from Mexico to deviant sexuality and even depicting recreational users injecting the drug intravenously! Films like Reefer Madness and She Was as High As Grass didn’t help cannabis’s new found public relations problems.

During the US governments ‘War on Drugs’ era “deceptive propaganda against marijuana” led the public to believe Cannabis was addictive, caused psychosis, violence and mental degradation, said Professor Grinspoon. In reality, Cannabis has remarkably limited toxicity and has never caused a death, unlike aspirin which kills over 1000 people each year. In fact, people cannot over dose from Cannabis because there are no Cannabinoid receptors in the brainstem.

Professor Lester Greenspoon said that, if it weren’t for Cannabis’s defamed reputation, it would be proclaimed a “wonder drug” today as penicillin was in the 1940s. The low toxicity of the plant means “cannabis has been found to be relatively benign and very useful”, said Professor Greenspoon.

At this point your probably thinking ‘if Cannabis can do so much good, why hasn’t it been taken up by pharmaceutical companies’. The answer repeated expressed at the Symposium was deafening. Cannabis is a plant and therefore it cannot be easily patented unless its genetic structure is dramatically altered. If you cannot patent it, you cannot gain a monopoly on it. So, it was more profitable for companies to keep selling patentable medicines, regardless of the potentially side effects. However, this is changing as pharmaceutical companies are producing products containing specific Cannabinoids for specific medicinal uses – such as whole plant extract nasal spray called Sativex, used to treat spasticity associated with Multiple Sclerosis.

The Cannabis plant contains 85 unique cannabinoids compounds with different functions for treating illnesses. Before I explain what cannabis can be used to treat, I need to explain why it works.

Check in again to read about the Endo-Cannabinoid System.

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