The Evolution of Medicinal Cannabis

Author: Autumn Lopez 

From the advent of early agriculture in the neolithic period to the imperial halls of ancient China, cannabis has grown and evolved alongside humans for millennia. Long used for its medicinal properties and strength as a fiber for textiles, our species’ connection to this plant can be traced back nearly as far as civilization itself, joining alongside humans throughout some of the most important milestones in our collective history. In this blog, we’ll trace the use of cannabis through time and discover some of the many ways people have incorporated this amazing plant into their lives. To find out where it all began, we must travel back millions of years, long before modern homosapians roamed the earth.

19 Million Years Ago Cannabis Species Emerges

The earliest evidence of cannabis on earth can be traced back roughly 19 million years ago to the steppes of Central Asia during the early Miocene epoch (Rull 2022). Ancestors of modern-day land mammals first appeared in the fossil record during this period alongside traces of cannabis pollen found in the North Eastern Tibetan Plateau, suggesting this is the likely origin of the plant (Encyclopaedia Britannica 1998).

10,000 BCE - 8,000 BCE Earliest Human Use

The first use of cannabis by humans can be dated to as early as 12,000 years ago in Central Asia, making it one of the world’s oldest cultivated crops. Archaeological evidence suggests the plant was likely grown for textile production, as a food crop, and potentially for its psychoactive properties (Blaszczak-Boxe 2014).

2700 BCE: Chinese Medicinal Practices

The advent of cannabis as medicine is widely attributed to the ancient Chinese emperor Shen Nung, although some archaeological evidence suggests it was used medicinally much earlier. Under his reign, Shen Nung prescribed infused cannabis teas as a treatment for various ailments, including gout and rheumatism (Randall 2004).

77 CE: Graeco-Roman Roots

The application of cannabis in the ancient Greek and Roman world was as vast as their culture of philosophy and scholarship, with many references listing cannabis-infused cakes as a common dessert. Some scholars even cite a potential reference to cannabis in Homer’s The Odyssey around the 8th century CE. Pliny the Elder makes explicit mention of its uses to ease inflammation from gout in his Naturalis Historia around 77 CE (Crocq 2020).

190 CE: Surgical Use

The legendary Chinese physician Hua T’o, known as China’s first surgeon, is widely credited with the discovery of anesthetics for his use of cannabis in abdominal surgeries. He was known to administer “mafeisan,” a mixture of hemp and wine, to patients before surgery to dull their pain (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2009).

800 CE: European Adoption

Although evidence suggests Europeans cultivated hemp for fiber and grain since the Roman period, the first appearance of cannabis used for medical purposes appears in the 9th-century text Old English Herbarium as a treatment for various common illnesses (Rull 2022).

1839: Cannabis in Western Medicine

The intrepid Irish medical pioneer Dr. William Brooke O-Shaughnessy helped introduce the use of cannabis in Western medicine with his 1839 paper, “On The Preparations of the Indian Hemp, or Gunjah.” Dr. O’Shaughnessy traveled extensively throughout India, writing several volumes on Indian medical practices, including the application of cannabis to cure various ailments (Gardner, n.d.). The 19th and early 20th centuries were known as the first golden age of cannabis in medicine, with Queen Victoria of England using it to treat painful menstrual symptoms. Unfortunately, a series of prohibitions and regulations across the Western world in the 19th and 20th centuries greatly restricted its continued clinical applications (Rull 2022).

1996: Medical Cannabis Legalization in the US

In 1996, California became the first state in the US to legalize medical marijuana with the passing of its historic medical marijuana legislation, with other states following suit over the coming two decades (Pacula and Smart 2015).

2024 And Beyond

As of 2024, 39 states have legalized medical marijuana, with many additional states currently considering legislation to expand access. According to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey, approximately 88% of U.S. adults believe cannabis should be legal recreationally and/or medically. With public support at a historic high, many predict the continued expansion of legalization efforts in the coming years. As things stand now, an astounding 79% of Americans live in a county with a marijuana dispensary, either medical or recreational, with more on the way (Pew Research Center 2024)!

As we journeyed through the annals of history, we uncovered the profound intertwining of cannabis with human civilization, dating back to its emergence nearly 19 million years ago. From its humble beginnings as a textile crop in Central Asia around 10,000 BCE to its revered status in ancient Chinese medicine under Emperor Shen Nung, cannabis has left an indelible mark on our collective narrative. Looking ahead to 2024 and beyond, with 39 states embracing medical marijuana and a growing acceptance nationwide, it’s evident that the journey of cannabis alongside humanity continues to evolve, promising new chapters in its storied legacy.

Works Cited

Blaszczak-Boxe, Agata. 2014. “Marijuana’s History: How One Plant Spread Through the World.” Livescience.Com, October 17, 2014.

Crocq, Marc-Antoine. 2020. “History of cannabis and the endocannabinoid system.” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 22 (3): 223–28. 

Gardner, Fred. n.d. “The Remarkable Dr. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy | O’Shaughnessy’s.”

Pacula, Rosalie Liccardo, and Rosanna Smart. 2015. “Medical Marijuana and Marijuana Legalization.” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 13: 397–419.  

Pain, Stéphanie. 2015. “A Potted History.” Nature 525 (7570): S10–11.

Pew Research Center. 2024. “Most Americans Live in a Legal Marijuana State, Have a Cannabis Dispensary in Their County | Pew Research Center.” March 1, 2024.

Randall, Robert. 2004. “The History of Medicinal Cannabis.” The State of Montana.

Rull, Valentı́. 2022. “Origin, early expansion, domestication and anthropogenic diffusion of Cannabis, with emphasis on Europe and the Iberian Peninsula.” Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics 55 (June): 125670.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1998. “Miocene Epoch | Plants, Animals, & Fossils.” Encyclopedia Britannica. July 20, 1998.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2009. “Hua Tuo | Acupuncture, Moxibustion & Surgery.” Encyclopedia Britannica. May 8, 2009.