As cannabis approaches mainstream recreational adoption in North America, it is easy to think the plant’s use as a source of pleasure and relaxation is a recent occurrence.
In fact, Cannabis sativa (marijuana) has a long medicinal, recreational and spiritual history.
More than 4,500 years ago, Chinese Emperor Shen Nung (or Shennong) became the first person to write about cannabis’ medical benefits, enshrining the plant’s foundational credentials in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
Since then, cannabis has been continually documented in Chinese medicine. For example, in the 16th century AD, the agricultural text, Essential Techniques for the Welfare of the People (Qi Min Yao Shu), describes techniques for the cultivation of hemp. Its monograph on cannabis cultivation features one of the first written applications of the use of fertilizer in the history of Chinese agriculture.
More recent archeological evidence from a 2,700-year-old tomb discovered in the Yanghai region of China’s Xinjiang province suggests that biotypes of cannabis were known to the ancient inhabitants of the region. Genetic testing has shown that the cannabis specimens from the tomb maintain some similarities to feral cannabis that remains in the surrounding region today.
Cannabis use in Xinjiang province was documented along the Silk Road from the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911 AD) to the 20th century, and was described in a report by the Russian explorer Shoqan Walikhanov in 1858.
All parts of the cannabis plant have been recorded in historical Chinese medical texts, including the achene (commonly referred to as “seeds” and known in TCM as huomaren 火麻仁), female inflorescence, leaf, and root, as well as the cortex of the stalk and the water used to process the stalk into fiber. Only the achenes (seeds) are currently used in clinical practice.
Unlike achenes’ use in Chinese medicine, Western medicine has concentrated on cannabis preparations made from the female flowering tops of drug varietals. These preparations were featured in early Western pharmacopeia texts from the 19th and 20th centuries. In the modern era, the investigation of cannabis for medical purposes in the West targets cannabinoids, resulting in prescription medicines like the botanically derived drug “Sativex” by GW Pharmaceuticals.
The first well-documented application of cannabis in an anesthetic formula in China appeared in the text Heart Text of Bian Que (Bian Que Xin Shu, 1127–1270 AD). The flower of cannabis (under the name mahua) was used internally in combination with datura flower as an anesthetic to decrease the sensation of pain when moxa cones were applied. This remedy was known as “sagacious sleep powder” (shui sheng san).
More recently, cannabinoids such as CBD and Δ9-THC have attracted increased attention relative to modern pharmacology and increasing acceptance Western culture.