The use of marijuana as medicine throughout the world dates back to ancient history. Here is a brief timeline of known dates along that history, dating as far back as scholars and historians currently know and leading up to just before the official founding of America.
It is worth noting before scanning this timeline that many parts of medical marijuana’s ancient history is unrecorded by scholars and historians. Tribes through Nomadic Africa and civilizations of ancient Persia, the Middle East, Madagascar, Egypt, Assyria, Greece and Rome, among others have all left behind artifacts indicating therapeutic uses of components of the cannabis plant.
circa 2900 B.C.
Fu Hsi, the Chinese Emperor credited with delivering civilization to the country, is said to make reference to Ma (or “cannabis” in Chinese) as a popular medicine possessing both yin and yang. The Chinese ideogram, or pictorial symbol, for Ma, incidentally, resembles cannabis plants hanging upside to dry in a shed.
Chinese legend cites the “Father of Chinese Medicine,” Emperor Shen Neng (known also as Chen Nung) as the discoverer of marijuana’s medicinal powers, prescribing it to treat a variety of illnesses, including malaria, rheumatism, poor memory and gout.
2000 – 1000 B.C.
Marijuana is used openly in the Indian Ayurvedic religion for the medical treatment of bronchitis, anxiety, rabies, epilepsy and other conditions.
circa 1500 B.C.
The earliest written reference of marijuana’s use as medicine appears in the Rh-Ya, a Chinese pharmacopeia predating recorded history.
circa 1450 B.C.
In the Book of Exodus (30:22-23,) The Bible makes reference to a “Holy Anointing Oil” produced from cannabis. This oil is said to be made from more than nine pounds of flowering cannabis tops (or “kaneh-bosm” in Hebrew) extracted with some other herbs and spices into olive oil.
Cannabis pollen is discovered on Ramesses II’s mummy. In Ancient Egypt, cannabis prescriptions were written to treat inflammation and glaucoma, to cool the uterus and for administering enemas.
India begins using a concoction made of cannabis and milk known as bhang as an anti-phlegmatic, anesthetic, anti-inflammatory, diuretic and anti-convulsant. This springboards marijuana’s use throughout India to treat a variety of other health problems.
The Venidad is a volume of the Zend-Avesta, a seventh-century Persian religious text allegedly written by Zarathustra, or Zoroaster and influenced heavily by the Vedas, the most ancient Hindu scriptures. Of 10,000 medicinal plants The Venidad references, it names marijuana as the most important. It also makes reference to bhang.
The Sushruta Samhita, an Ayurvedic medical treatise cites marijuana’s anti-phlegmatic properties and its use as a cure for leprosy. At the time this is written, people throughout India are already talking about marijuana’s abilities to accelerate and improve thinking, reduce fever, relieve insomnia and alleviate dysentery.
Marijuana is reportedly used in Greece to treat inflammation, edema and earaches.
This year’s edition of Pen Ts’ao Ching, an annual Chinese compendium of medicinal recipes dating back to Shen Nung’s time and considered the world’s oldest pharmacopoeia, recommends marijuana to treat over 100 different ailments.
Jesus supposedly uses an anointing oil containing cannabis. Vessels from Egypt and Judea dating back to this time have cannabis residue detected in them.
De Materia Media (On Medical Matters) is published and becomes the most important medical tome for the next 1,500 years. In it, its author, Greek physician and Roman army doctor Pedanius Dioscorides, writes that both the male (kannabis emeros) and female (kannabis agria) versions of the plant produce a juice with the abilities to suppress sexual urges and treat earaches.
Ancient Roman historian, scientist and nobleman Pliny the Elder writes in his famous book Naturalis Historia that boiled cannabis roots can alleviate gout, cramped joints and other forms of severe pain.
A Chinese surgeon named Hua T’o combines cannabis resin and wine to make an anesthetic called ma-yo for use on patients undergoing invasive surgeries like organ grafts, intestinal resectioning and chest or loin incisions.
800 – 900
During Roman times, the Arabic world experiences widespread therapeutic use of cannabis to treat a range of complaints including syphilis and migraines. They also use it as an anesthetic and analgesic. One Islamic physician of the era, Rhazès, prescribes it frequently.
Arabic scholars tout its effectiveness in treating epilepsy.
Throughout Africa, marijuana begins gaining in use to combat dysentery and malaria and to facilitate childbirth.
Hemp is an essential component of most herbalists’ medicine cabinets throughout the Middle Ages. In the 1538 New Herball, the naturalist William Turner, widely recognized as the first British botanist, sings its praises.
In Bencao Gangmu Materia Medica, a Chinese medical text, author Li Shizhen explains marijuana’s use in treating hemorrhaging, parasitic infections and vomiting. It continues to serve as a folk remedy for the Chinese people, who use it as an appetite stimulant and to treat dysentery and diarrhea.
Playwright William Shakespeare uses cannabis to stimulate his mind, according to an abundance of pipes and other evidence later found and reported by Thackery in the South African Journal of Science.
Since the Jamestown settlers first bring hemp to America in 1611, its fiber becomes a key export throughout the colonial period. In 1762, Virginia even penalizes those who won’t cultivate and manufacture it and rewards those who do.
Robert Burton, an Oxford Scholar and English Clergyman, suggests in The Anatomy of Melancholy, a popular and influential book both then and today, that cannabis may be an effective treatment for depression.
In The English Physitian (sic), English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper writes of the many medical uses of hemp extract, including to alleviate the pain from gout, knotty joints, painful ligaments and hips and inflammation in the head.
William O’Shaughnessy, an Irish doctor employed by the British East India Company, proclaims through England and America the medical benefits of marijuana for treating nausea and rheumatism.
Meanwhile, writings on the potential benefits of hemp seeds and roots for treating an array of health concerns like incontinence and skin inflammations begin appearing in several American medical journals.
In an edition of Vanity Fair in 1862, hashish candy is touted as a joyful and harmless stimulant that treats depression and uneasiness.
Mexican immigrants flock into the United States during the Mexican Revolution of 1910, carrying with them the recreational use of marijuana. Cannabis becomes associated with immigrants, and fear and prejudice toward newcomers become associated with marijuana. Massive unemployment, as well as rising hostility to Mexican immigration, makes the state worry about the potential problem of marijuana during the Great Depression. And by 1931 marijuana has become illegal in 29 states.
The Marijuana Tax Act is passed, limiting marijuana usage to those who can pay a high excise tax for specified industrial and medical uses.
The Boggs and Drug Control Acts are approved, establishing strict mandatory sentences for marijuana and other drug crimes – from 2 to 10 years and a fine of up to $20,000.
Gradual easing of marijuana laws. In 1977, in his message to Congress, President Carter states that anti-marijuana laws affect marijuana users more than the drug itself. But, it’s still a long way to legalization.
President Ronald Reagan signs the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. This law increases marijuana punishments and mandatory sentences, equating cannabis with heroin.
President George H.W. Bush launches a “New War on Drugs” and continues promoting anti-marijuana initiatives.
California voters adopt Proposition 215, making California the first state to legalize marijuana for therapeutic use at the state level.
As of February 3, 2022, 37 US states and four territories permit the use of cannabis products for medical purposes.