A Brief History of Medicinal Cannabis

With recent debates about the increasing calls to fully legalise medicinal cannabis in the U.K and abroad, it can be useful to look back at cannabis’ medical history to determine where the stigma around the substance originally came from. In this article we will lay out cannabis’ origins, its ancient history and more recent developments so that it’s long history of medicinal use can become clearer.


The Cannabis plant evolved somewhere around 20 to 25 million years ago according to DNA studies, with it diverging from Humulus or hops, its closest relative, 27.8 million years ago.

Fossil pollen suggests that the north-eastern Tibetan plateau was the centre of cannabis’origin, with it likely originating near China, certainly in central Asia, before it spread westward from there.

Ancient history of cannabis

  • In Japan, much like hemp, cannabis was cultivated from the pre-Neolithic period onwards for its fibres but also as a food source.
  • In India, cannabis has been used for thousands of years in many different ways but particularly in the spring festival of colours – Holi.
  • Cannabis was also used in ancient Egypt as an anti-anxiety drug and as a medicinal remedy for pain, eye conditions and epilepsy.
  • Ancient Romans and Greeks used it as a surgical analgesic as well as in food and wine. It was also put to use as a muscle relaxant and to treat tumours, headaches and even childbirth complications.
  • The ancient Assyrians were certainly aware of cannabis and its psychoactive properties and used it in religious ceremonies. The Assyrians probably discovered cannabis’ psychoactive properties through the Aryans, who also likely introduced it to Scythians, the Dacians and Thracians.
  • Hebrews used cannabis as a simple medicine and in ritual ceremonies.

Early bans on cannabis

You might think banning cannabis is a relatively new phenomenon but in actuality there have been bans on cannabis throughout the centuries. The Muslim cultures of ancient Egypt are known to have banned it, as was the case in France in the Napoleonic era.

Despite this, cannabis use, particularly as a medicine, remained popular until the nineteenth century.

Recent history of cannabis


  • William O’Shaughnessy, an Irish physician working for the British East India Company, becomes the first person to publish on cannabis use in modern medicine after he notices local doctors using cannabis extract to treat a range of medical issues. He also uses cannabis to treat patients in his hospital in Kolkata.
  • Interestingly, O’Shaughnessy’s description of treating of a baby girl with infantile convulsions echoes modern findings on cannabis as a childhood epilepsy treatment: “The child is now in enjoyment of robust health and has regained her natural plump and happy appearance.”


  • O’Shaughnessy catalyses cannabis use by U.K doctors when he brings cannabis seeds back to Britain. He is even reported to have said that Queen Victoria used cannabis to aid her menstrual pain.

Late 1800s to early 1900s:

  • Likely due to the development of new, modern synthetic medicines like antibiotics, barbiturates and aspirin, cannabis use begins to dwindle.


  • This period in history is linked to growing governmental concern around the international trade of opium, so conventions to limit the trade and use of opium take place.
  • At one of these conferences in Geneva in 1925, an Egyptian delegate took it upon himself to explain that hashish was as dangerous as opium so should be in the same category of restriction.
  • There was no counter argument, so cannabis was labelled as a drug with the same risks as opium and other narcotic agents.


  • Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the U.S, develops a fixation on cannabis and spends many years demonising the drug. Much of his reasoning here is racist, and he therefore latches onto the anti-black and Mexican mood of the times.
  • Working in cahoots with newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Harry Anslinger helps to publish a number of anti-cannabis articles.

1930s to 40s:

  • With much focus from an increasingly influential press, the public is encouraged to see cannabis as a dangerous drug rather than as a form of medicine that has existed for many thousands of years.


  • The United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs takes place. This still included cannabis at the time.
  • As a result of this convention, Cannabis was placed in Schedule 4 – its most restrictive level – where drugs that are considered most dangerous with little therapeutic potential are put.
  • All of the countries that signed up to this convention had to put their own regulations into place to restrict the use of cannabis.


  • The U.K issues the Misuse of Drugs Act in which cannabis is placed in Class B of three classes of controlled drug classification.
  • Possession of a Class B substance can still carry up to 5 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine, whilst intent to supply carries a prison sentence of up to 14 years and an unlimited fine.


  • The Misuse of Drugs Regulations was issued, placing cannabis in Schedule 1: a category for drugs with no medicinal value which includes LSD and raw opium.


  • Medicinal cannabis is reclassified as a Schedule 2 drug, meaning it can be legally prescribed by doctors and pharmacists when other medication has failed, provided that the full Controlled Drug requirements are followed by such professionals.


It’s clear to see that throughout history, cannabis’ potential as an effective medicine has been recognised by a number of different cultures across the world, with the demonisation of the substance taking place relatively recently in its long history. However, with medicinal cannabis recently being broadly decriminalised, many hope that the known therapeutic value of cannabis will be recognised once again in the future, without any of the accompanying stigma that developed from the 19th Century onwards.

Further investigation and research into medicinal cannabis and alternative medical options is thoroughly encouraged by The Academy, particularly through the use of our own online coursesevidence base and whitepapers.

The rest of our resources are available on our website. We urge anyone considering use of medical cannabis products to consult with a trained medical professional prior to beginning use.

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