A Brief History of Medical Marijuana

The following is an excerpt from my book Understanding Medical Marijuana. This is Chapter 4: A Brief History of Medical Marijuana.

“Great book! So informative, especially on the historical details!” — Andreas Mueller, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany.

— Gooey Rabinski

Those who think medical marijuana has been in common use only since the mid ‘90s, or maybe since the hippy revolution of the late 1960s, are a few thousand years off. Medical applications based on cannabis have been employed for millennia in most cultures of the world, especially India, Asia, the Middle East, South Africa, and South America.

HBK11RenderDespite today’s prohibition, hundreds of medical cannabis products were mainstream in the United States during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In fact, commercially available cannabis tinctures were the primary form of pain relief until aspirin was introduced in the early twentieth century (patented by Bayer in 1900, aspirin was sold first as a powder; tablets didn’t became available until 1915).

That’s right: Until the dawn of the 20th century, pot—albeit in tincture form, not smoked—was the primary form of pain killer in the United States. One hundred years ago, if a young girl skinned her knee, she was given a marijuana tincture, not an orange and white Bayer aspirin.

10,000 Years of Use

The medical use of cannabis is likely more than 10,000 years old. Historical evidence from the Bronze Age (in the 3rd millennium BC) reveals cultures that inhaled cannabis smoke, as indicated by the discovery of charred cannabis seeds in a ritual brazier (primitive barbeque) at a burial site in what is presently Romania.

Solid evidence also comes from the reign of Chinese Emperor Chen Nung, 5,000 years ago, when cannabis was recommended for malaria, rheumatism, constipation, and menstrual cramps. In 1621, nearly half a millennia ago, English clergyman Robert Burton suggested cannabis for the treatment of depression.

In the United States, medical cannabis became common in the mid-nineteenth century. Doctors in the 1800s literally understood the benefits of cannabis better than contemporary physicians, publishing more than 100 papers on the topic. In 1854, cannabis was listed in the United States Dispensatory (an unofficial listing of medical drugs) and commercial remedies based on cannabis were readily available in drugstores and pharmacies in every community.


Dentists even used it in the mouth and on the tongue as a topical anesthetic. According to Lester Grinspoon, a professor at Harvard Medical School and medical marijuana expert, some pharmacists attending the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia “carried ten pounds or more of hashish.”

Golden Age of Medical Cannabis

In 1890, British physician J.R. Reynolds published his 30 years of experience with cannabis, recommending it for multiple conditions. For insomnia, he said, “I have found nothing comparable in utility to a moderate dose of Indian hemp [cannabis].”

Reynolds—like many contemporary doctors 125 years later—believed that cannabis was useful for treating migraine headaches, epilepsy, asthma, depression, and painful cramps. In his position as the court physician to Queen Victoria, he infamously prescribed a cannabis tea for her menstrual cramps.

In 1891, American doctor and author J.B. Mattison reported that cannabis prevented migraine attacks and blocked the pain of existing migraine headaches. Mattison’s results were later supported by Canadian physician William Osler (one of the four founding professors of Johns Hopkins Hospital), who wrote that marijuana was “probably the most satisfactory remedy” for migraines.


One author labeled the 100 years between 1837 and 1937 as the Golden Age of Medical Cannabis. During that time, it was a common medical ingredient in a wide variety of commercially available pharmaceutical treatments. In fact, one museum has identified more than 600 medical products involving cannabis as a chief ingredient prior to its prohibition in 1937.

Cannabis use for medical purposes began to decline around 1890 for a few reasons.

  • First, cannabis potency was too unpredictable, likely due to the relatively poor plant genetics of the day.
  • Second, the introduction of the hypodermic syringe in the 1850s allowed a variety of drugs and opiates to be directly injected, delivering quick pain relief (cannabis, which is not water soluble, can’t be administered by injection).
  • Third, more profitable and predictable synthetic drugs, such as aspirin and barbiturates, became available.

Unfortunately, these drugs also carry the risk of death. More than a thousand people die each year in the United States alone from bleeding produced by aspirin. Cannabis, on the other hand, while being more difficult to administer in a standardized fashion due to varying potency, to this day has produced no documented deaths.


In August 2013, the National Institutes of Health stated (on the National Cancer Institute website) that cannabinoids (the active chemicals found in marijuana) appear to have “significant analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects, anti-tumor effects, and anti-cancer effects, including the treatment of breast and lung cancer.” Despite endorsements such as this, many in Congress and within the ranks of law enforcement continue to adamantly oppose research into the merits of cannabis as medicine.

Today, 27 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical use in some way (including four states and D.C. that have legalized recreational adult use). Outside the U.S., many countries allow medical pot at the federal level, including Canada, France, Israel, the Netherlands, Romania, Cambodia, and the Czech Republic. Even in North Korea, one of the most notorious and oppressive totalitarian regimes in the world, marijuana is legal.

Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has committed to legalizing recreational cannabis at the federal level in his country.  In Mexico, the Supreme Court has ruled that cannabis prohibition violates the rights of its citizens—although the President of Mexico doesn’t agree.

Increasingly, legalization of cannabis use for all purposes is sweeping the nation and the globe. The few examples of full legalization that exist, such as Uruguay, Denver, Seattle, Portland, and many parts of California, are proving to the world that legalization can be good for society, the economy, and even help maintain a crumbling infrastructure of schools and roads.

How does learning about the the medical potential of cannabis, while knowing the purposeful hurdles that have been put in place by governments and anti-progressives, feel?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. I want to know. 

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003-2018 Gooey Rabinski. All Rights Reserved.

Gooey Rabinski is a technical writer, photographer, and compliance documentation specialist for cannabis businesses who has contributed feature articles to magazines and media outlets such as High Times, CannaBiz Journal, MERRY JANEEmerald Magazine, Grow Magazine, Herb.coThe KindSkunk, Cannabis Culture, WhaxyHeads, Weed World, Green Flower MediaCannabis HBK11RenderHealth Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself.

He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana, available on Amazon Kindle.

His cannabis-related freelance photos, spanning back more than a decade, are available on Instagram and Flickr. He tweets from @GooeyRabinski.


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