What Is Medicinal Cannabis?
The cannabis plant has been a point of controversy for decades, however it has gradually started to shake off its negative reputation. Medicinal cannabis is at the heart of this changing perception. The contention is by no means settled, but for those who are seeking medical treatments for a wide range of ailments, the stigma is at the very least starting to subside.
This blog post aims to explore the history of cannabis’s use as a medicine, when and why cannabis first became prohibited, the modern re-examination of cannabis as a medical treatment and some use cases. Whether you’ve never heard of medicinal cannabis or you’re a long time user of cannabis as a therapeutic, you’re most certain to learn something new about this fascinating topic.
The Deep Rooted History of Cannabis as Medicine
The use of cannabis for its therapeutic properties goes back thousands of years. Cannabis use is thought to have originated in central Asia or western China in around 2800 BC. It was even documented by Emperor Shen Nung, considered the father of Chinese medicine, in one of the very first pharmacopeia (an encyclopedia of known medicinal substances).
Through The Centuries
Throughout the following centuries and millennia, many societies and civilisations have documented the use of cannabis as therapeutic. Ancient Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Indian civilisations all used the cannabis plant for its therapeutic properties. The illnesses they were treating with cannabis ranged from arthritis, inflammation, pain, lack of appetite and asthma.
Introduction of Medicinal Cannabis to the West
It wasn’t until 1841 that medicinal cannabis was introduced to the western world, when an Irish physician named William Brooke O’Shaughnessy returned from a trip to India. He is considered the pioneer of medical marijuana, documenting what he learned in India about the plant’s therapeutic properties, he even included a case where cannabis stopped the convulsions of a child.
The Prohibition Era
There have been efforts to prohibit the use of cannabis, therapeutic or otherwise, in many different countries over many years. Egypt looked to regulate the use of hashish in the late 1800’s, and South Africa sought to prohibit the use of cannabis in its provinces around the same time. Often this was due to concerns about its use among workers, likely having a negative effect on productivity.
Prohibition of Cannabis in the USA
USA is probably the country most people jump to when they think about the bans on cannabis. The USA is indeed an interesting case, out of which spring many conspiracy theories and finger pointing. There were certainly influential people at the top of media and politics that sought to demonise the plant, leading to plenty of propaganda and ugliness, ultimately resulting in the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act and eventually criminalisation.
Failure to Distinguish Medicinal From Recreational
Unfortunately not enough was known about the role cannabis could play in medical treatments back then, and so when cannabis was outlawed, there was no distinction made between medicinal and recreational use.
NZ History of Prohibition
In New Zealand cannabis was prohibited following the signing of the 1925 International Opium Convention. Following that, The Dangerous Drugs Act 1927 was enacted, restating the illegality of cannabis. Since then we’ve had The Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 on the books and only in 2018 was medicinal cannabis decriminalised under The Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Act 2018.
Re-examining The Medicinal Properties of Cannabis
Modern researchers began their studies into the medicinal effects of cannabis in earnest around the 1960’s. In 1964, Israeli scientist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam and his team successfully isolated THC from the cannabis plant, allowing for more controlled studies of the effects of THC. Since then many more compounds have been identified in the plant and studied for their effects.
Alongside this more rigorous laboratory research, the anecdotal stories of cannabis providing relief from a range of symptoms never stopped. The medical profession began in the 1970’s to introduce cannabis as a treatment for nausea during chemotherapy for glaucoma.
These developments and others, lead to more and more research being conducted. Over time numerous discoveries were uncovered which slowly began to reveal the significant role cannabis could play in treating disease. In 2018, the first CBD based drug to be approved by the FDA in the United States, was made available to those suffering from severe epilepsy.
Effective Use Cases for Medicinal Cannabis
Today, the list of ailments cannabis can potentially alleviate is staggering: from debilitating migraines and arthritis to neurological conditions like epilepsy. It can take a long time for treatments to be recognised officially by scientific and medical institutions. But the growing body of scientific research is encouraging, not to mention the centuries of anecdotal evidence for the effectiveness of cannabis in treating disease and illness.
Worth mentioning too is its impact on mental well-being. Cannabis, when taken responsibly, can provide solace to those battling anxiety and PTSD.
List of the clinically researched uses for medicinal cannabis:
- Chronic Pain: Especially neuropathic pain, sometimes seen in conditions like multiple sclerosis and certain types of chronic pain syndromes.
- Nausea and Vomiting: Particularly from chemotherapy. Drugs like dronabinol and nabilone are THC analogs approved for this purpose.
- Muscle Spasticity: Especially associated with multiple sclerosis or spinal cord injuries.
- Epilepsy: CBD-rich cannabis extracts have been found to be effective, especially in treatment-resistant epilepsy in conditions like Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. Epidiolex, a CBD-based drug, has been approved by the U.S. FDA for this.
List of anecdotally reported or preliminarily researched uses:
- Appetite Stimulation: In HIV/AIDS patients and others with reduced appetite.
- Glaucoma: To reduce intraocular pressure, although cannabis is not a first-line treatment.
- Anxiety: Some users report reduced anxiety with cannabis, but high doses or THC-dominant strains might exacerbate it.
- Sleep Disorders: Including insomnia.
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Some patients report symptom relief.
- Depression: Mixed reports; some users find relief while others might experience worsening symptoms.
- Inflammatory Conditions: Such as Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Tourette Syndrome: Some reports of symptom reduction.
- Parkinson’s Disease: To alleviate tremors and pain.
- Alzheimer’s Disease: For behaviour management and symptom relief.
- Huntington’s Disease: To manage movement symptoms and weight loss.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): For symptom relief.
- Migraine: Some patients find relief from migraine pain or reduced frequency.
- Fibromyalgia: For pain and symptom management.
- Cancer: Beyond symptom management (pain, nausea), some preliminary research suggests certain cannabinoids might have direct anti-tumor effects.
- Skin Disorders: Topical applications for conditions like eczema and psoriasis.
- Asthma: Due to bronchodilatory effects, though smoking is not recommended for obvious reasons.
- Opioid Dependency: As a potential substitute or adjunct in pain management to reduce opioid doses.
The Global Push for Legalisation
Over the past few decades, the conversation around cannabis has shifted dramatically in many western countries. A plant that was once universally illegal and frequently demonised is now recognised for its medicinal properties and is being decriminalised or legalised at an accelerating pace.
First Countries to Commit to Full Decriminalisation
Uruguay became the first country to fully legalise the production, sale, and consumption of cannabis in December 2013. Following that, Canada decriminalised cannabis at the federal level in October 2018.
Both countries maintain some regulation over the sale, growing, possession limits and age restrictions. Other countries are closely watching how things turn out in these countries, and it is likely only a matter of time before the next nation steps up to fully decriminalise.
The use of cannabis for medicinal purposes has already gained traction as a legal activity. Many western countries including New Zealand have provisions in their laws regarding medicinal cannabis. It’s still not as easy to obtain an exemption as some may like, but the exemption exists at the very least. As more and more is revealed relating to the effectiveness of cannabis as a treatment, it is likely that cannabis laws will continue to be addressed.
Methods of Consumption for Medicinal Cannabis Users
For those who seek to remedy their illnesses through the use of medicinal cannabis, there is no shortage of options for how they might do this. Here are some of the main methods someone might consume or apply their cannabis treatment:
- Smoking – Combusting cannabis flowers and inhaling the smoke.
Used for chronic pain, Muscle spasms, Nausea, Appetite loss.
- Vaping – Heating cannabis to release its active compounds without combustion.
Used for both flower and concentrates to treat chronic pain, muscle spasms, nausea, PTSD symptoms, anxiety.
- Edibles – Cannabis-infused food products.
Used for chronic pain, insomnia, muscle spasms, anxiety, PTSD symptoms
- Tinctures – Cannabis extracts in alcohol or oil base, taken sublingually (under the tongue).
Used for chronic pain, muscle spasms, seizures, anxiety, inflammation
- Topicals – Cannabis-infused lotions, balms, and oils applied to the skin.
Used for localised pain, inflammation, arthritis, skin conditions.
- Pills/Capsules – Cannabis in pill or capsule form.
Used for chronic pain, nausea from chemotherapy, appetite loss from HIV/AIDS treatment
- Dabbing – Inhaling the vapour from cannabis concentrates heated on a hot surface.
Used for chronic pain, nausea, muscle spasms.
General Notes for the Consumption of Medicinal Cannabis:
- Onset & Duration: Smoking and vaping provide immediate relief but last a shorter duration, making them suitable for conditions requiring rapid symptom alleviation. Edibles, on the other hand, take longer to kick in but last longer, making them ideal for conditions like chronic pain or insomnia.
- Dosage Control: Tinctures, pills, and capsules allow for more precise dosage control compared to methods like smoking or edibles. This can be crucial for conditions where consistency and exact dosing are paramount.
- Localised Relief: Topicals are ideal for localised relief, as they don’t produce systemic effects or psychoactive experiences. They’re great for conditions like arthritis or specific areas of inflammation.
- Health Considerations: For those concerned about the health effects of smoking, methods like vaping, tinctures, or edibles can be preferable. However, edibles can be tricky due to the delay in onset and potential for overconsumption.
- Concentration: Dabbing is for experienced users and offers a very concentrated dose, which can be beneficial for those with a high tolerance or severe symptoms. However, it’s less suited for beginners or those sensitive to THC.
The journey of medicinal cannabis, from its deep-rooted historical origins to its contentious present, remains a testament to its enduring therapeutic potential. Today, as science and society converge, the once demonised plant stands vindicated in many respects. Although the debate around its broader recreational use persists, the consensus surrounding its medicinal applications is gaining solid ground.
Medical practitioners, patients, and researchers continue to uncover the myriad ways in which cannabis can alleviate suffering. As we continue to push the boundaries of our understanding, one thing becomes clear: cannabis has a lot more to offer than meets the eye.
The global push towards legalisation is not just a matter of societal acceptance but also a recognition of the in-depth scientific research that backs many of the claims made about this plant’s potential. The anecdotes of yesteryears are now being substantiated by rigorous studies, leading to an era of increased acceptance and potential breakthroughs in medical treatments.
To all readers, whether you’re a skeptic or an advocate, remain open-minded and informed. As the landscape of medicinal cannabis continues to evolve, we can all benefit from a nuanced, well-researched perspective on this ancient remedy that promises a brighter, more inclusive future for global health care.