Marijuana Medicine in 19th Century America

From 1850 to 1937, cannabis was used as the prime medicine for more than 100 separate illnesses or diseases in U.S. pharmacopoeia.

During all this time (until the 1940s), science, doctors, and drug manufacturers (Lilly, Parke-Davis, Squibb, etc.) had no idea of its active ingredients.

Yet from 1842 until the 1890s, marijuana, generally called Cannabis Indica or Indian Hemp extractums, was one of the three items (after alcohol and opium) most used in patent and prescription drugs (in massive* doses, usually by oral ingestion).

* Doses given during the 19th Century to American infants, children, youth, adults, women in childbirth, and senior citizens, in one day, were, in many cases, equal to what a current moderate-to-heavy American marijuana user probably consumes in a month or two, using U.S. government's 1983 guidelines for comparison.

Violence was equated with alcohol use; addiction to morphine was known as the "soldiers' illness."

And so, during that era, cannabis gained favor and was even recommended as a way of helping alcoholics and addicts recover. Some temperance organizations even suggested "hasheesh" as a substitute for (wife beating) "Demon" alcohol.

However, cannabis medicines had been largely lost to the West since the days of the Inquisition. (See chapter 10, "A Look At The sociology")

Until, that is, W.B. O'Shaugnessy, a 30 year old British physician serving in India's Bengal* province, watched Indian doctors use different hemp extracts successfully to treat all types of illness and disease then untreatable in the West, including tetanus.

* "Bengal" means "Bhang Land," literally Cannabis Land.

O'Shaugnessy then did an enormous (and the first Western) study,* in 1839, and published a 40-page paper on the uses of cannabis medicines. At the same time, a French doctor named Roche was making the same rediscovery of hemp in Middle Eastern medicines.

* O'Shaugnessy used patients, animals, and himselffor his research and experiments. Incidentally, O'Shaugnessy went on to become a millionaire and was knighted by Queen Victoria for building India's first telegraph system in the 1850s.

O'Shaugnessy's medical paper and findings on hemp extracts stunned and swept through the Western medical world. In just three years, marijuana was an American and European "superstar."

Papers written by first-time American users (novices) and doctors using, treating, or experimenting with cannabis, told straight forward accounts of its usually euphoric, and sometimes disphoric, mind- and time-expanding properties for both child and adult, as well as hilarity and increased appetites, especially the first few times they tried it.

Interestingly, during this whole period of time (1840s to 1930s) Lilly, Squibb, Parke Davis, Smith Brothers, Tildens, etc., had no effective way to prolong its very short shelf life and had great difficulty standardizing dosages.

As noted before, marijuana medicine was so highly regarded by Americans (including some Protestant theologians) during the last century that in 1860, for example, the Committee on Cannabis Indica for the Ohio State Medical Society reported and concluded that, "High Biblical commentators [scholars]" believe "that the gall and vinegar, or myrrhed wine, offered to our Saviour, immediately before his crucifixion, was in all probability, a preparation of Indian hemp [marijuana], and even speak of its earlier use in obstetrics."*

* Reprinted from the transcripts of the 15th annual meeting of the Ohio State Medical Society, at White Sulphur Springs, Ohio, June 12-14, 1860, pg. 75-100.

The main reasons that cannabis medicines fell into disuse in America was the difficulty of identifying and standardizing dosage, e.g., in 1964, 27 years after America outlawed cannabis in 1937, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam of Tel Aviv University first discovered the THC delta molecules as the active ingredients in cannabis. Also, doctors in the late 19th Century could not find a way to inject it into humans with their brand new hypodermic needles and still haven't.

By the 1890s, some of the most popular American marriage guides recommend cannabis as an aphrodisiac of extraordinary powers no one ever suggested a prohibition law against cannabis. And while there was talk of an alcohol prohibition law, a number of women's temperance organizations even suggested "hasheesh" as a substitute for "demon" alcohol, which they said led to wife beating.

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