Essence Dispensary

A rich history of medicinal cannabis

Cannabis has a rich history spanning thousands of years. Its use, both recreational and medicinal, can be traced back to ancient civilizations. The earliest recorded evidence was in ancient China, around 5000 BC, where cannabis was used in rituals and as a medicine. Chinese pharmacopeias (from the Greek, ‘medicine making’) documented using it to treat rheumatism, gynaecological disorders, and malaria.

Ancient Indian civilizations embraced cannabis for its medicinal properties. The sacred text Atharvaveda, composed around 1500 BC, references cannabis as one of the five sacred plants with potential healing powers. In Ayurvedic medicine, cannabis was recommended for a range of ailments, including insomnia and anxiety.

As trade routes across the globe expanded, so did the use of cannabis. In Egypt 1500 BC, Assyrian clay tablets record inflammation being treated topically with cannabis. Evidence also suggests cannabis was used to aid labour pains during childbirth. By the Middle Ages cannabis use spread to Europe, where it became a popular remedy for pain relief and other ailments.

The 19th century cannabis gained popularity in Western medicine. An Irish physician, Sir William O’Shaughnessy, saw how cannabis was used in India and introduced cannabis to Western medicine. Pharmaceutical products commonly included cannabis extracts for conditions such as migraines and muscle spasms.

Despite its ancient history of medicinal benefits, cannabis suffered a dramatic shift in perception and legal status in the 20th century.

The Marihuana Tax Act of 19371 in the United States brought in cannabis prohibition, driven by political, economic, and racial factors. The plant became stigmatised, and its medicinal properties were overshadowed by legal restrictions. This significantly impacted both scientific research and medical utilisation of cannabis.

In 1988, researchers published the groundbreaking paper, “The Cannabinoid Receptor: Biochemical, Anatomical and Behavioral Characterization.” It founded the understanding of how specific brain receptors responded to cannabinoids and bolstered further scientific research and discovery of the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system got its namesake after the plant (cannabis) responsible for discovering this system, which goes beyond the brain into the body’s organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells. In 1992, anandamide, an endogenous cannabinoid (endogenous means its properties are lipid-based) was discovered in the brain. And in 1995, another endocannabinoid called 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) was discovered.

Medical cannabis is now widely recognised for its efficacy in managing various medical conditions. It’s legalised for medicinal use in numerous countries. In 2016, Australia federally legalised medicinal cannabis to allow patients to access cannabis with a medical doctor’s (MD) prescription. Conditions for which it is prescribed include, but is not limited to, multiple sclerosis, chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting, seizures, non cancer pain and palliative care.

The history of cannabis is a fascinating journey through time. While the plant faced periods of prohibition and stigma, the resurgence of interest in its medicinal properties reflects a growing acceptance of its potential benefits. As research continues, cannabis may play an increasingly significant role in modern medicine, guided by both historical wisdom and contemporary scientific understanding.

1 Although the spelling “marijuana” is common “Marihuana” was the spelling used in Federal documents at the time.


Booth, M. (2003). Cannabis: A History. Picador.
Russo, E. B. (2007). History of Cannabis and Its Preparations in Saga, Science, and Sobriquet.
Chemistry & Biodiversity, 4(8), 1614–1648.
Abel, E. L. (1980). Marijuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years. Plenum Press.
Zuardi, A. W. (2006). History of cannabis as a medicine: A review. Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria, 28(2), 153–157.