Many people consider the legalization of medical marijuana to be a new and innovative idea, but in reality, marijuana has been considered a medicine throughout the majority of our history as human beings—and has been illegal only for a short time in the scheme of things. To fully understand the importance of medical marijuana and why it was ever considered taboo in the first place, let’s take a look at the role it has played through history.
The very first recorded medical use of marijuana dates back to 2737 B.C. in China, where Emperor Shen-Nung prescribed cannabis it for ailments such as constipation, gout, malaria, rheumatism and poor memory. In fact there are countless recorded uses of medical marijuana in pre-Christ times. In ancient Greece, cannabis was used as a remedy for earache, edema, and inflammation. In India, it was used as an anesthetic and anti-phlegmatic. And people in the eastern Mediterranean used it as balm for the pain of childbirth and disease.
The plant’s medical use spread around the world and by the late 18th century, early editions of American medical journals recommend hemp seeds for a number of ailments. Irish physician William O’Shaughness, who wrote the first modern English medical article on cannabis in 1839, helped spread the medicine’s popularity in Europe and the US. From 1842 until the 1890s, various marijuana and hashish extracts were the first, second or third most prescribed medicines in the United States.
It had seemed that marijuana was benefitting people all over the world, so why did it become banned in America? The sad truth is that marijuana became illegal in the United States due to fear: fear of morphine addicts, fear of immigrants and fear of job loss.
During the Depression era, many Mexicans came to America in search of work, some of whom brought marijuana—which is native to Mexico—with them. Many Americans, already struggling to find work themselves, were afraid they would lose jobs to the immigrants. And because they couldn’t outlaw the immigrants—they banned the drug they brought with them.
Other Americans were fearful that marijuana would be the new choice drug of former morphine, cocaine and opium addicts. In the early 19th century, a large part of the US population was unknowingly addicted to drugs because of the secret ingredients in certain “medicines” and elixirs. Many people saw the intoxicating effects of marijuana as a new substance for these drug addicts to abuse.
So, despite the firm objections of the American Medical Association, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 federally prohibited cannabis and marijuana was officially illegal in the United States. The final nail was hammered when the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified cannabis as a Schedule I drug. As a Schedule I drug, the government contends that the drug has a high potential for abuse; has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States; and there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug under medical supervision. But the right to use medical marijuana wasn’t over.
Only 6 years after the Controlled Substances Act was passed, a man named Robert Randall sued the federal government for arresting him for using cannabis to treat his glaucoma—and won, making him the first person in US history to obtain legal, medical access to marijuana. The FDA was ordered to set up a program to supply medical marijuana to Randall, and delivered him 300 cannabis cigarettes every month.
In 1978, when the government tried to stop supplying the medicine, Randall sued again—and won again. This time, the federal government set up the Investigational New Drug (IND) compassionate access research program to supply Randall and other patients with up to nine pounds of cannabis every year. George H. W. Bush discontinued the IND program in 1992 after an influx of AIDS patients tried to apply for program. As of 2010, five surviving patients still receive marijuana from the federal government under the IND.
Despite the centuries of documented safe use and countless scientific studies proving the effectiveness of marijuana on numerous medical conditions, cannabis is still classified in America as a Schedule I drug. Efforts to change this on a federal level have failed, so in 1996, patients and advocates turned to the state level for access. California was the first state to eliminate state-level penalties for the use of medical marijuana. Since then, similar initiatives have been passed in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Washington, D.C. Every year, more bills are introduced legalize the medical use of marijuana at the state level.