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Biology Articles » Health and Medicine » Medicine and Diagnosis » History of cannabis as a medicine: a review » Before the Christian Era

Before the Christian Era
- History of cannabis as a medicine: a review

Cannabis Sativa (cannabis) is among the earliest plants cultivated by man. The first evidence of the use of cannabis was found in China, where archeological and historical findings indicate that that plant was cultivated for fibers since 4.000 B.C.1 With the fibers obtained from the cannabis stems, the Chinese manufactured strings, ropes, textiles, and even paper. Textiles and paper made from cannabis were found in the tomb of Emperor Wu (104-87 B.C.), of the Han dynasty.1

The Chinese also used cannabis fruits as food. These fruits are small (3 to 5 mm), elliptic, smooth, with a hard shell, and contain one single seed. The first evidence of the use of these seeds was found during the Han dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.). In the beginning of the Christian Era, with the introduction of new cultures, cannabis was no longer an important food in China, although, until today, the seeds are still used for making kitchen oil in Nepal.2

The use of cannabis as a medicine by ancient Chinese was reported in the world's oldest pharmacopoeia, the pen-ts'ao ching which was compiled in the first century of this Era, but based on oral traditions passed down from the time of Emperor Shen-Nung, who lived during the years 2.700 B.C. Indications for the use of cannabis included: rheumatic pain, intestinal constipation, disorders of the female reproductive system, malaria, and others.2 In the beginning of the Christian Era, Hua T'o, the founder of Chinese surgery (A.D. 110 – 207), used a compound of the plant, taken with wine, to anesthetize patients during surgical operations.1

The Chinese used mainly the seeds of cannabis for medical purposes;1 therefore, it may be assumed that they were referring to that part of the plant when describing its medicinal properties. Until today, cannabis seeds continue to be used as a laxative by Chinese physicians.2 It is acknowledged that the seeds are practically deficient in D9-tetrahydrocannabinol (D9-THC), which is considered the plant's main active constituent, and is mainly composed of essential fatty acids and proteins. Today some of these fatty acids are considered as having therapeutic effects, such as the g-linoleic acid, whose topical use is recommended for eczema and psoriasis, and its oral use for atherosclerosis, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and other inflammatory diseases.3 In China, the medical use of cannabis never reached the importance it did in India.

The first reference to the use of cannabis, as a psychoactive drug, is also in the pen-ts'ao ching, as observed in one of its phrases: ...ma-fen (the fruit of cannabis)... if taken in excess will produce visions of devils … over a long term, it makes one communicate with spirits and lightens one's body…4 In spite of this reference, there are scarce citations of the use of cannabis as a hallucinogen in ancient Chinese texts. One possible explanation is that such use was probably associated to shamanism, a religion of the people from Central Asia. During the Han dynasty, this religious practice started to decline in China, and became disbelieved and increasingly restricted. Ancient texts rarely mentioned shamanism and, thus, there is no reference to the use of cannabis as a hallucinogen.2 Although shamanism became gradually more restricted in China, it was rather common in the Northern nomadic tribes, which may have contributed to the dissemination of cannabis in Central and Western Asia and in India.4

In India, the use of cannabis was widely disseminated, both as a medicine and as a recreational drug. Such a broad use may be due to the fact that cannabis maintained a straight association with religion, which assigned sacred virtues to the plant. The Atharva Veda (a collection of sacred texts of unknown author) mentions cannabis as one of five sacred plants, referring to it as a source of happiness, donator of joy and bringer of freedom. Hence, cannabis use became part of numerous religious rituals in that region.2

The plant's psychoactive effects were well-known in India, possibly due to the way it was prepared for use, which included at least three preparations. The weakest type, Bhang, consists of dry leaves from which flowers are carefully removed. A stronger type, Ganja, is prepared with the female-plant's flowers. The strongest of them all is the Charas, made exclusively of the resin that covers female flowers.2 These forms of preparation guarantee the presence of active cannabinoids. Currently we know that the plant has secreting hairs that are located mainly on the female-plant's flowers and, in a smaller amount, on the leaves of its superior third. Solitary resin glands most often form at the tips of the trichome stalks. These glands have a considerable amount of active cannabinoids. Breaking the glands liberates the active cannabinoids.5

In India, the medical and religious use of cannabis probably began together around 1000 years B.C.6 The plant was used for innumerous functions, such as: analgesic (neuralgia, headache, toothache), anticonvulsant (epilepsy, tetanus, rabies), hypnotic, tranquilizer (anxiety, mania, hysteria), anesthetic, anti-inflammatory (rheumatism and other inflammatory diseases), antibiotic (topical use on skin infections, erysipelas, tuberculosis), antiparasite (internal and external worms), antispasmodic (colic, diarrhea), digestive, appetite stimulant, diuretic, aphrodisiac or anaphrodisiac, antitussive and expectorant (bronchitis, asthma).2,6-7

Furthermore, cannabis was traditionally considered sacred in Tibet, although little has been written about its religious or medicinal use. In Tantric Buddhism, which was developed in the Himalayas, cannabis was used to facilitate meditation.2 Though seldom reported, it is believed that the medical use of cannabis in Tibet was intense due to the following reasons: the concepts of Tibetan medicine stem from Hindi medicine; botany was of great importance in its pharmacopoeia; and, finally, cannabis was abundant in that region.2

Evidence suggests that the Assyrians also knew about the psychoactive effects of cannabis and used it as incense since the ninth century B.C.2 It is also possible that, before the Christian Era, Assyrians used the plant externally for swellings and bruises, and internally for depression, impotence, arthritis, kidney stones, 'female ailment', and for the 'annulment of witchcraft'.7

In Persia, cannabis was also known before the Christian Era.6 The Persians knew about the plants biphasic effect, and made a clear distinction between its initial euphoric and its late dysphoric effects.2

In Europe, historical and archeological evidence suggests the presence of cannabis before the Christian Era. It seems the plant was brought by Scythian invaders, who originated from Central Asian and reached close to the Mediterranean. In the year 450 B.C., Herodotus described a Scythian funeral ceremony, and stated that they inhaled the vapors obtained from burning cannabis seeds with ritualistic and euphoric purposes. That description was later confirmed by archeologists who found charred cannabis seeds in Scythian tombs in Siberia and Germany.7

Reference to the use of cannabis by the Greeks and the Romans are scarce, suggesting that it was little used by these people.2,6 In the beginning of the Christian Era, there are two references of the use of the seed's juice for earache and to drive worms and insects out of the ears.7


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