The Evolution of Medical Marijuana

The Evolution of Medical Marijuana

The use of marijuana as both a medicinal herb and one used to achieve an altered state has a long history throughout the world. Described in Chinese medical literature as far back as 2737 BC, its use spread from China to nearby India, then to North Africa and finally Europe around 500 AD. The marijuana crop was cultivated in North America and was used mainly as a source of fiber.

Early Uses of Marijuana as Medicine


George Washington, our first president, was particularly interested in growing marijuana for medicinal purposes and his diaries indicate he successfully grew the plant on his plantation for over 30 years in the mid 1700s. In the 1800s, marijuana was listed in United States directories of prescribed medicines and was used to treat everything from rheumatism to labor pains.

President Roosevelt’s Food and Drugs Act of 1906 was the first step in labeling marijuana as a potentially dangerous substance. The puritanical laws that followed targeted everything from alcohol to racetrack gambling and states, starting with Massachusetts, began making cannabis illegal. The United Kingdom soon followed suit and added marijuana to the list of prohibited drugs in the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1928.

In the 1930s, however, American pharmaceutical companies were still packaging and selling drugs made from the cannabis plant to be used as a sedative and analgesic. This started to decline in 1936, when all states had enacted regulation laws and new medicines such as aspirin and morphine began replacing marijuana for the treatment of medical conditions and pain. In 1942, marijuana was officially removed from the US Pharmacopeia guide, thus losing its last official claim to legitimacy as a medicine.

The Banning of Marijuana

In 1956, marijuana was included in the Narcotics Control Act, which lead to stricter penalties for possession and to tighter control of the drug as a banned substance. The increased drug use in the 1960s prompted a plan by President Johnson called Reorganization Plan No. 1 in 1968. This placed the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Bureau of Drug Abuse Control in the Department of Justice to better regulate what it deemed dangerous drugs.

Marijuana was dealt a large blow in 1970 when The Controlled Substance Act classified it along with heroin and LSD as a drug with a high potential for abuse and little to no accepted medical use. During his time in the White House, President Nixon began a war on drugs and continually ignored recommendations from The Shafer Commission that recommended use of marijuana be decriminalized. Despite this, eleven states did decriminalize it in the 1970s and many others reduced their penalties associated with possession of the substance.

New Recognition of Marijuana’s Medical Properties

A court case in 1976 reignited the debate over the medical uses of marijuana. Robert Randall, a resident of Washington, DC who had glaucoma, used the little-known Common Law Doctrine of Necessity to defend himself against a criminal charge of marijuana cultivation and all charges were subsequently dismissed. This lead to Randall becoming the first US citizen to receive a legal prescription for marijuana to treat a medical disorder.

Spurred on by this case, New Mexico became the first state, in 1978, to pass a law recognizing the medical value of marijuana and, in the 1980s, different components of the cannabis plant underwent testing to develop drugs for cancer patients and for those afflicted with nausea.

In the 1990s, scientific breakthroughs helped investigators understand the pharmacological effects of cannabis when they discovered the cannabinoid receptor system. Two years later, they identified the brain’s natural version cannabis’s THC compound which they called anandamide. This helped them better understand why marijuana had positive effects on certain medical conditions and mood disorders.

Medical Marijuana Legislation Enacted

Medical marijuana initiatives began appearing in the United States during this same timeframe with San Francisco being the first with Proposition P in 1991. The proposition, which was passed with 79% of the vote, called on the State of California to restore hemp to lists of available medicines and to stop penalizing physicians who prescribed it for medical conditions. Five years later, voters in California passed Proposition 215, which permitted patients to possess and cultivate marijuana for the treatment of certain medical conditions.

Despite statements from former Presidents Ford, Carter, and Bush urging voters to reject medical marijuana initiatives, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington became the second, third, and fourth states to legalize the drug in 1998 for medical purposes. In 1999 through 2000, Maine, Hawaii, Colorado, and Nevada followed suit.

Recognizing its antioxidant and neuroprotectant properties, the US Department and Health and Human Services applied for and received a patent for the therapeutic use of cannabinoids in 2004. Two more states, Vermont and Montana, legalized medical marijuana in the same year. Rhode Island joined their ranks in 2006 and New Mexico in 2007.

Marijuana Recommended by Mainstream Medicine

In February of 2008, the argument for medical marijuana was bolstered by the second largest physicians group in the country. The American College of Physicians officially supported the use of non-smoked forms of marijuana and asked for more research and a federal rescheduling of the drug.

Legalization Continues

As more and more states legalized the use of medical marijuana—20 in all by 2013, the Justice Department announced that it would not challenge the state’s laws and allow them to address their own marijuana activity. In 2015, medical marijuana scored another major victory when the federal government removed a ban on privately funded medical marijuana research.

Presently, 29 states including California have legalized the use of medical marijuana. In California, Prop. 64 was passed in November of 2016 that allows medical marijuana patients to obtain state-issued ID cards and exempts them from paying sales tax on their medical marijuana purchases. It is now legal for those with a physician recommendation to buy marijuana from a dispensary and to grow it in their homes for personal use.

Medical marijuana has experienced a long road on the way to legalization in the United States and around the world. Fortunately, those in California who want to use the drug as an alternative form of medicine for numerous conditions will now find it much easier to do so. If you have questions about weed laws in California or if you’d like to apply for your medical marijuana card online, please sign up here.