Anesthesia and Beyond: The Medical History of Cannabis

By Anna Rose Cooke


If cannabis isn’t a medicine, someone needs to tell the cavemen

A lot of people don’t like cannabis — especially people who have never inhaled it, or studied its fascinating genomic structure and history, like we at the Agricultural Genomics Foundation do. (We’re not saying whether we’ve inhaled or not.)

These pot-loathers think it’s a silly or dangerous or just plain smelly plant that hurts society, one that should be yanked out of the ground like poison ivy on a school playground.

The official federal government position is: pot has no accepted medical uses.

After all, these skeptics demand, if it’s a medicine, why is it called “Trainwreck” and “Ace Killer OG”? Why does the apothecary that sells it have Grateful Dead posters? Why do so many nausea “patients” seem to need their medicine right before they ski double blacks?

Prohibitionists scoff at the long list of medical conditions that the states have already approved cannabis use for. And it is a long list. From Arkansas to Oklahoma, cannabis has been approved to treat dozens of diseases, everything from epilepsy to Tourette’s to Nail-patella syndrome.

But there are many holes in these arguments, from scientific papers to anecdotal evidence.

Plus, if the federal government is right that pot has no medical uses, then they need to do more than tell the scientists, the patients and the states. They need to invent a time machine so they can go back and tell the cavemen.

Because thousands of years before the first scientific study, your greatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreagreatgreatgreatgreatgreatgreat grandma — who never heard of Cheech and Chong — was raising pot plants in her garden.  

Cannabis is quite possibly one of the first plants cultivated by humans. And they didn’t grow it just to giggle, or induce the munchies before feasting on woolly mammoths.

The history of Cannabis, as is typical with many psychoactive plants, has always
had roots in cultural and religious usage. As Ethan B. Russo states in his book Cannabis and Cannabinoids: Pharmacology, Toxicology, and Therapeutic Potential, the background of Cannabis is infused with an “intermixture of medical science with
other moral categories.” While the merit of cannabis as a tool for medicine
cannot be completely separated from its cultural significance, a comprehensive
history of the use of cannabis in the medical sphere will illuminate the ways that
modern society can embrace its full potential.

The beginnings of medicinal cannabis can largely be traced to its use as an anesthetic. A type of Cannabis known as C. Sativa — the most common type sold at dispensaries  — has its oldest recorded usage in Southern Asia and Africa. From there it spread around the world, to places like Sumatra and, eventually, the New World.

The most abundant cannabinoid, Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is known for its psychoactive effects. As such, the plant was determined useful in Central Asia and Northern Africa as an anesthetic in the form of Ma-yo wine. The Chinese physician Hua T’uo was recording his application of cannabis in surgical cases around 800 BCE.

As Cannabis culture expanded, becoming part of Indian Ayurvedic medicine and serving as anesthesia in Persia and Tibet in 500 BCE, so too did its uses. The ancient Greek physician Dioscordes wrote that Cannabis could be used as both a stimulant and a pain reliever, specifically as a way to combat ear infections. In the European Middle Ages Hildegard Von Bingen wrote in his work Physica that “cannabus” could be relied upon as it “reduces bad juices and reinforces the strong ones.” This nearly legendary healing capability — based heavily on the medical theory of the time that the human body was made of various humors or “juices” that needed to be balanced continuously — was a common mystification of Cannabis.

Indeed, after its initial introduction to Western, evidence-based medicine in the middle 19th century, medical discussions of Cannabis began to decrease due to a lack of definitive research. The different potencies and varieties of Cannabis — from marijuana to hashish (both in the C. sativa and the C. afghanica cultivars) — as well as the myriad applications — topical, oral, etc. — have proven significant barriers in advancing the use of cannabis in medicine. However, the identification of chemical structures and the separation of pure constituents of the cannabis plants beginning in 1964 have revitalized research. Cannabinoid receptors and the endogenous cannabinoid system within the brain are still being researched today, and further investigation of these effects and applications can begin to pave the way for modern medical usage.

The growth of cannabis from a rudimentary anesthetic to a possible treatment for cancer and traumatic brain injuries relies upon the advancement of definitive research; a development only recently being explored by modern medicine.

We at the Agricultural Genomics Foundation are on the cutting edge of unlocking the secrets of this plant. In our papers, we’ve interpreted its DNA, characterized its genomic and chemical diversity, and roadmapped some genetic tools for studying it.

In this way, we can help understand the very nature of cannabis, and show what a fascinating plant it is — even to people who will never inhale.

Cannabis’s history is as deep as civilization itself. But we at the Agricultural Genomics Foundation are not so much about the history of the plant.

We are about its future.


Edited by Reilly Capps (@ReillyCapps)