A Five-Minute History: Cannabis Research

By ebbu Staff

Cannabis has long been used as medicine—going back at least 6,000 years around the world.

Researchers report that records of cannabis use date to 2,700 years ago in Ancient China, where it is believed to have been used as an anesthetic. It played a role in Ayurvedic medicine in India, and its use was also documented in Egyptian papyri.

In Europe, Englishman Robert Burton’s 1621 book The Anatomy of Melancholy offered cannabis to treat depression. Other references pop up in the 1700s, and from 1840 to 1900, when more than 100 papers were published in Western medical journals pointing to the benefits of medical marijuana.

Professor Raphael Mechoulam (courtesy WikiCommons)

Professor Raphael Mechoulam
(courtesy WikiCommons)

In the 20th century, interest in cannabis for medical purposes had a resurgence thanks to the work of Bulgarian-born Israeli biochemist Dr. Raphael Mechoulam. There’s a reason Dr. Mechoulam is called “The Father of Cannabis Research.” Over the past 50-plus years, he has co-authored upwards of 300 articles in academic journals, been honored by dozens of scientific organizations for his groundbreaking work and appeared at numerous international conferences to push for further research and legalization.

Mechoulam’s first research material took the form of hashish seized by Israeli police that he convinced them to turn over to him to study. Mechoulam went on to map out the structure of the cannabis compound cannabidiol (CBD) in 1963, followed the next year by tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). In 1992, he described the first cannabinoid receptors in the body’s endocannabinoid system, and in 1998, he helped coin the term “entourage effect,” which describes how natural plant compounds—cannabinoids and terpenes—work together to produce different effects than they would individually.

Most importantly, Mechoulam worked with the Israeli government to create one of the world’s first medical marijuana patient programs in 1992, and Israel has since continued to lead the way on cannabis research.

American physician and author Dr. Ethan Russo, also a big name in cannabinoid research, built on Mechoulam’s body of work with a 2008 paper he co-authored, Cannabis and Cannabis Extracts, and another paper published in 2011, where he found synergies among cannabis compounds in the treatment of pain, inflammation, epilepsy, cancer, depression, anxiety, addiction and bacterial infections.

In Spain, Dr. Manuel Guzman is researching the potential of cannabis to fight cancer tumors. And researchers like Dr. Sue Sisley at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and Dr. Marcel Bonn-Miller at the University of Pennsylvania have been doing important work looking at the use of cannabis to help veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In January 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine made a splash when it released the longitudinal study The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research, reviewing 10,000 cannabis studies published since 1999. The report broke down medical uses for cannabis into categories of those with “conclusive,” “substantial,” “moderate” and “limited” evidence, with conclusive evidence listed for efficacy in treating chronic pain, improving multiple sclerosis spasticity and reducing nausea.

Another big turning point for modern cannabis research was in May 2017, when the most rigorous clinical study to date on a cannabis-derived medication was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, confirming what anecdotal evidence has shown for years: CBD has positive effects for many epilepsy patients.

American research has been hobbled by the refusal of the federal government to remove cannabis from the list of Schedule I drugs, where it was placed in 1970. These drugs are said to have “no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.”

We remain hopeful that these restrictions will soon be lifted, but in the meantime, our ebbu scientists are proud to continue contributing to the knowledge base of cannabis science.