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The earliest known account of cannabis is from 2727 BCE, when the mythical Chinese emperor Shen Nung described it and ordered it to be studied. Legend has it that he was born with the head of a bull and the body of a human, and could talk by the age of 3 days, and based on that description it’s safe to say he probably never existed. However, a catalogue of 365 plants attributed to the “father of Chinese medicine” included cannabis, and a second century BCE Chinese pharmacopeia cites this catalogue.
There is evidence of cannabis cultivation for hemp clothing as early as 14,000 years, making it one of the first crops to be cultivated in the world. Cannabis is native to central and East Asia and has been described in ancient Middle Eastern, Sumerian, Sanskrit and Akkadian texts going back to at least 1800 BCE. The earliest records show it was being used to treat convulsions, or what is thought to have been epilepsy. We now know that the anti-epilepsy properties of cannabis that our ancestors prized is the result of the chemical cannabidiol (CBD).
The ancient Aryans of Northern India used to make a drink called soma, which was a potent mix of ephedra (the source of ephedrine), opium, and cannabis. It was said to loosen the tongues and make for endless enjoyable debate. In the Vedas, the ancient sacred texts of Hinduism, cannabis is one of the five sacred plants. It even had a guardian angel that lived in its leaves. Lord Shiva, the god of destruction and rebirth, is also known as the Lord of Bhang because cannabis (Bhang, a cognate of gangja, the Sanskrit word for cannabis) was his favourite food.
Clearly, our ancestors used cannabis. They knew it helped to relieve anxiety, and pain, as well as making them feel good. What they did not know was that CBD was a big part of that.
Western Medicine and CBD
Hemp had been grown in Europe for thousands of years, and there is some evidence that people would employ it for medicinal use.
Hemp has very little psychoactive THC but a lot of CBD. Culpepper’s Complete Herbal, the oldest book continuously in print other than the bible and one of the great collections of herb law, describes hemp as “so well known to every good housewife in the country [England] that I shall not need to write any description of it”. Culpeper goes on to describe how it “consumes wind” (farts), can be given “with good success to those that have the jaundice”, “eases colic”, “allays the troublesome humours of the bowels” to “kill the worms in men and beasts”, “allays inflammations of the head, or any other pats”, “eases the pains of the gout, the hard humours of knots in the joints, the pains and shrinking of the sinews, and the pains of the hips”.
If the reader can get past the archaic language, they will recognize that hemp was being used in 17th century England for many of the conditions we are now using CBD for: inflammation, bowel problems, gout, joint pain and muscle pain.
Culpeper’s contemporaries accused him of witchcraft and he was nearly burned alive by people who just could not handle the truth. Seem familiar? If not, please see the recent War on Drugs.
In 1838, an Irish doctor by the name of William Brooke O’Shaughnessy brought cannabis back to England from India, where he had been impressed by the locals using it in ayurvedic medicine. It quickly caught on in England and spread to the rest of Europe and the Americas, where it was used for a variety of medical purposes, including rheumatoid arthritis, agues, nausea, and anxiety.
Explosions and Studies
In 1899, a scientist by the name of Wood was trying to study the chemical composition of cannabis. His team succeeded in identifying cannabinol, but a series of tragic accidents curtailed the research. Wood himself was nearly killed in a zinc ether fire. His colleague Esterfield was killed while trying to hydrogenate cannabinol, and yet another colleague, Spivey, was killed trying to nitrate it. Strangely enough, the scientists were all trying to isolate a chemical that is not actually found in cannabis; cannabinol is the result of heating THC.
Finally, Cannabidiol is Found
In 1940, a team of American scientists led by Roger Adams managed to isolate cannabidiol and describe it to a certain extent. Another team in England were doing the same research, only using Indian hemp instead of industrial hemp. Indian hemp did not have much cannabidiol but they managed to isolate and crystalize it. They thought it had no pharmacological action except it could be cyclized to THC, and it remained on the shelf for about 20 years.
In 1963, Israeli scientists Mechoulam and Shivo described the structure of CBD for the first time. They later went on to do the same for THC.
Illegality and Inaction
Cannabis has been a controlled substance in the USA since 1912, gradually becoming more and more illegal as further legislation was passed. By the 1930’s, propaganda campaigns by the US government were spreading lies, misinformation, and cruel racist associations about cannabis. According to them, cannabis was a dangerous drug that could lead to “Reefer Madness” (check out the video on YouTube), social disintegration, “shocking violence” and miscegenation (or interracial relations).
By associating it with crime and negroes (their word, not ours), the governments of the West succeeded in turning generations against cannabis.
This was unfortunate and a shot in the foot for medicine. The evidence was there from the start: cannabis has healing properties that are highly beneficial to us.
In the long run, illegality did nothing to stop people taking it, but, unfortunately, it did put a lot of Black and Mexican people in jail.
Because of all of this, Cannabis, and therefore CBD, was classified as having “no accepted therapeutic value”. Research into cannabis was rare and usually only performed to prove the negative effects, which were never as bad as legislators would have liked.
Research and Gradual Acceptance
By the 1990’s, the ways cannabinoids work in the body were beginning to be properly explored. Receptors were discovered and increasingly there was evidence that CBD could be used safely. The endocannabinoid system was emerging as a serious target for therapy because it was so key to treating many different conditions. At this time, attention was turning away from cannabis as a drug of abuse and some began to regard it as a medicine. Due to this, many medicinal benefits were attributable to CBD, which is an abundant, non-psychoactive cannabinoid.
From the early 2000’s on, CBD was the subject of increasing interest. Eventually scientists began to realize its use for treating the pain of multiple sclerosis, its impressive anti-inflammatory properties and apparent neuroprotective and antipsychotic abilities, and its use as an antiemetic for chemotherapy. The enviable safety profile of CBD also attracted ever more attention and funding. A cannabis product that did not get anyone high was what the world had been waiting for, some just did not know it yet.
In 2006, a girl with Dravet Syndrome, Charlotte Figi, was born. She had 300 grand mal seizures a week from the age of 3 months, each damaging her brain. Her parents, in desperation, turned to medical cannabis and she stopped having seizures immediately. The press got hold of it and a new generation of medical cannabis support was born.
By the turn of the 2010’s, CBD had been legalized in most American states. Now it is legal in 50. Just recently, the FDA approved CBD for treating two rare forms of epilepsy, including Dravet syndrome.
It’s taken a long time, but it appears as if CBD has finally been openly recognized and talking about by the medical community as an effective healing substance.
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