Over the last few decades, the laws surrounding the use of cannabis, or marijuana, have been changing. Some states began adopting laws allowing for its medical use as early as the 1990s, and more recently certain states (Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia) have rolled out new laws legalizing its recreational use .
More and more information regarding the drug’s purported therapeutic benefits have been making headlines, and have garnered much attention across the medical and political realms. This might lead you to believe that the research on the benefits of cannabis is relatively new, and is merely a response to, or a catalyst for, complete legalization of the drug. You may be surprised, then, to find out that scientists and medical professionals have been studying the effects and possible therapeutic benefits of marijuana for more than eighty-five years.
A Brief History of Marijuana Legalization
The use of cannabis as a therapeutic remedy dates back centuries, with evidence suggesting its use more than five thousand years ago in what is now Romania. There is some evidence that tells us that the first medical use of the weed was around 400 AD .
In the U.S., the United States Pharmacopoeia described using marijuana as a patent medicine for the first time in 1850, and it continued to be widely used into the early part of the twentieth century .
The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was the first time the use and sale of marijuana were restricted by the federal government in the United States . It was primarily the government’s response to political pressure from groups who were afraid that the drug would be spread throughout the country by “Mexicans” .
Five years later, cannabis was dropped from the United States Pharmacopoeia in 1942, and penalties for its possession began increasing over the next fifteen years. The Boggs Act of 1951 established strict criminal penalties, including a minimum jail sentence, for those who were caught violating current drug laws, and in 1956 the Narcotic Control Act was passed which imposed even stricter drug control penalties .
In 1970 the Controlled Substances Act was introduced, which placed all substances that were already being regulated in some manner by existing law into one of five categories. A substance was placed in a category based on three criteria: its medical use, it’s potential for abuse, and its safety liability . These laws not only restricted the use of cannabis, but they limited the amount of research that could be done since the procurement of the drug for academic purposes was restricted .
The tables began to turn in favor of marijuana in 1996 when the state of California enacted the Compassionate Use Act, which legalized the use of botanical cannabis under the supervision of a physician .
Since then, many states have given the drug fully legal status, which means it can be used both medically and recreationally .
Cannabis is currently legal for recreational use in 11 states and 33 for medicinal use. Here is an up to date map.
Historical Research Points to the Benefits of Therapeutic Marijuana
While the legality of marijuana has limited the amount of research that could be done about the drug over the years, the recent change in its prohibited status has allowed scientists and medical professionals to take a deep dive into its effects, benefits, dangers, and potential uses. It appears, though, that today’s researchers are more or less picking up where their ancestral colleagues left off.
Upon digging into the archives of medical research, you can find studies from over eighty years ago that point to marijuana as being useful both for medical purposes and for everyday health maintenance .
A report from 1934 talks about its use “in Migraine, in paralysis agitans, in spasms of the bladder, in sexual impotence, in whooping cough, in asthma, and in other spasmodic affections…” .
The problem, however, was not in its efficacy, but the drug’s variability, which the researchers assumed was the reason it was not more widely used. Most likely this was because the cannabis that was being used at the time was picked wild from riverbanks, as opposed to today’s modern agriculture, in which we can better control variables .
As modern medicine shifted toward isolating compounds for precision medicine, the focus on cannabis as a therapeutic decreased because it was difficult to reduce the variability and isolate the cannabinoid compounds .
In 1949, despite the restrictions placed on marijuana, Dr. Jean P. Davis of the University of Utah medical college made an important discovery: “drug principles isolated from the leaves of marijuana… play an important role in research on a cure for epilepsy.” 
She found that the drugs being used to treat epilepsy were synthetic substances related to cannabinol, found in marijuana leaves, but it does not produce the same effects (aka it doesn’t get you high) .
Scientists continued to study the plant, its compounds, and its possible medicinal uses. In 1966, Dr. Edward G. Taylor at Princeton University stated that “marijuana may become the father of a whole new generation of drugs [that can help cure diseases].” .
What Does Today’s Research Say About Therapeutic Cannabis?
As the use of marijuana has become more acceptable, and many states have begun legalizing it for both medical and recreational purposes, more and more medical professionals are looking toward the drug as a possible solution for a variety of health issues. So how does the old research match up to today’s studies?
Epilepsy: Epilepsy is one of the most common neurological diseases, and approximately one-third of people suffering from epilepsy have seizures that are resistant to antiepileptic medication. The use of the cannabis sativa plant for the treatment of the disease has been known since ancient times, specifically due to the active ingredient cannabidiol (CBD) because it doesn’t produce adverse psychotropic effects .
Before 2016, most of the clinical trials did not show any significant effects of cannabis reducing seizures, however, these trials were all very small, typically with less than fifteen participants. More recent studies with over one hundred participants have had very positive results, seeing great reductions in seizures .
It is important to note, however, that in all of these trials, CBD was used alongside epilepsy medication, so the question that remains is whether or not CBD actually reduces seizures, or whether it simply renders antiepileptic medication more effective .
Research like this has even led to the production of a prescription drug known as Epidiolex. It contains cannabidiol and is used for treating two forms of epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, and Dravet syndrome.
Asthma: Smoking marijuana is associated with a greater risk of developing asthma . There is, however, a growing body of research looking into the use of cannabinoids to reduce asthma. Many of these studies have actually found that THC, the psychoactive compound found in marijuana, is responsible for the anti-asthma effects . Some studies have found that THC activates CB1 receptors, which are responsible for the harsh cough that asthma sufferers experience .
Other studies have found that the bronchodilator and anti-inflammatory effects of cannabis could be responsible for the reduction in asthma symptoms, but more research is needed .
Migraines: There are limited studies about the effects of cannabis and migraines, and the ones that do exist look at the combined effects of CBD and THC together, not CBD on its own. There is, however, mounting evidence that cannabinoids could be effective at relieving pain in general, which could include migraines and headaches [13,14].
Muscle Spasm: Recently researchers have been studying the use of cannabinoids in reducing muscle stiffness and spasticity in people with Multiple Sclerosis. The painful muscle stiffness associated with MS reduces a patient’s mobility, interferes with daily activities and reduces sleep quality. Current treatments are not very effective and tend to cause more harm than good, prompting many sufferers to turn to cannabis as an alternative treatment .
Many of the reports suggesting that cannabinoids have provided relief from MS symptoms have been anecdotal, but the mechanism by which this occurs has remained largely untested in a clinical setting [17,18].
Because MS attacks the central nervous system, some researchers believe that cannabis could be beneficial because of how it affects the brain, but more research needs to be done to understand exactly what is going on. Many sufferers of MS, however, have turned to marijuana as a treatment on their own, citing significant positive benefits .
Cannabinoids: The Future of Medicine?
While marijuana and its bioactive compounds may not be a “cure-all” for every disease and health problem, there has been evidence for centuries that it could be a valuable therapeutic. More research is needed to understand exactly how the drug affects various ailments, but as it is made legal in more and more states across the country and it becomes more widely available, we will begin to see better, more definitive studies to direct medical professionals in its use.
Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and is for information only. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions about your medical condition and/or current medication. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking advice or treatment because of something you have read here.
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