The History of Medical Cannabis: From Chinese ‘Ma’ To CBD

This article was originally published on The Cannigma, and appears here with permission.

If you’ve ever been to a cannabis museum, like the one in Las Vegas, chances are you finished the visit even more confused than when you entered the building. Truth is, the history of cannabis is complicated and confusing. There are several genera of the cannabis plant, several accepted uses for it at different times and places, plus cultural references and politics thrown in for good mix.

Let’s put controversy aside for a minute. We are here to discuss medical cannabis, meaning the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. Such use is now legal in many countries, and people have used cannabis for medicinal purposes since ancient times. Cannabis has even been backed by science for use in dealing with chronic pain and some specific medical conditions, but we’ll discuss that later. For now, it’s important to understand what medical cannabis is and why we call it “medical.”

Cannabis Field

What is medical cannabis?

Medical cannabis is cannabis or sometimes cannabinoids, the chemical components of the cannabis plant, that are used for their therapeutic qualities (unlike in recreational use, in which they are used for their psychoactive effect). For cannabis to be considered “medical”, it needs to be prescribed by physicians for their patients. In other words, medical cannabis is legal cannabis. In the countries and states in which cannabis was legalized this way, the doctors who are prescribing it mostly need to have a permit. Cannabis can be prescribed in many countries, including Canada, Germany, Australia, Thailand, Israel, Italy and dozens of US states.

It is worth noting that in many countries you can also buy Cannabidiol (CBD), a specific component in the cannabis plant, with no need for a prescription. In these situations, CBD is extracted from hemp, a genus of cannabis that contains little to no amount of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is another component of cannabis, which is widely known for its psychoactive properties. CBD alone is considered neither intoxicating nor addictive and is known to be anti-inflammatory. Therefore, many use it to deal with chronic pain or just to maintain general health.

However, before the world knew how to extract CBD from cannabis, using the plant as a whole was the only way of consuming it. Anyway, the first documented use for cannabis wasn’t purely medicinal.

Ancient China

Cannabis was known in ancient China as “ma,” as a source for food and other products, as well as a medicine. Hemp was specifically popular since it turned out to be useful in producing paper and clothing. Because hemp was also proved to be durable and long-lasting, it was used in the military to produce bowstrings for archers.

It was around 2700 B.C. that Emperor Shen Nung suggested cannabis as a treatment for more than 100 conditions, including rheumatism and malaria. The emperor is considered the father of Chinese Medicine and is thought to have established the foundations for Pen Ts’ao Ching, the world’s oldest pharmacopeia.

The first health care professional to experiment with cannabis as an anesthetic was the founder of Chinese surgery, Hua T’o. Around the second century A.D., he combined cannabis resin with wine and called it ma-yo. He reported that the anesthetic reduced patients’ pain even during painful procedures like chest and loin incisions.

Cannabis in the Ayurvedic tradition

Cannabis was and is still widely used in India when mixed into special drinks that locals consume for enjoyment, as well as for medical reasons. One of the most popular drinks is bhang, a mix of cannabis paste (made from leaves and buds) with milk, ghee and naturally for India – spices.

In the sacred book Atharvaveda (“science of charms”), bhang is referred to as one of the “five kingdoms of herbs… which release us all from anxiety” (2000-1400 B.C.). Ancient Indian writers described it later as having “mental powers” since it “removes wind phlegm” and makes people happy. Bhang was also used as a cure for …

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