Cannabis is one of the oldest known medicinal plants. In almost every ancient handbook on plant medicine it is described commonly in the form of a tincture or a tea. In ancient Egyptian mummies clues have been found indicating the use of cannabis as a food or medicine.

Archaeological evidence indicates it was cultivated in China for food and fibre as long as 10,000 years ago. The plant then spread from Asia to Africa and on to the Middle-East. Eventually it arrived in Europe around 500 BC. In 1545, cannabis was introduced to the western hemisphere by the Spaniards who imported it to Chile for its use as fibre. In North America, cannabis, in the form of hemp, was grown for industrial use in rope, clothing and paper manufacture.

The medicinal use of cannabis was introduced to Europe only recently by a young Irish doctor called William O’Shaughnessy in around 1840. He served for the British East Indian Company, and while in India he recognised the widespread medicinal use of cannabis. In the following decades cannabis gained a short period of popularity in Europe and the United States. At this time dozens of different medicinal preparations were available with cannabis as the active ingredient. They were recommended for indications as various as menstrual cramps, asthma, cough, insomnia, the support of birthing labour, migraine, throat infection and withdrawal from opium use.

As no tools existed for quality control at the time, it was impossible to prepare a standardised medicine. Patients often received a dose that was either too low, having no effect, or too high, resulting in serious side effects. Because of such drawbacks the medicinal use of cannabis slowly disappeared in the beginning of the twentieth century. Its place was largely taken over by opium-based drugs such as codeine and morphine.

Cannabis gradually disappeared from all western pharmacopoeias. In the late fifties the World Health Organisation (WHO) claimed that cannabis and its preparations no longer served any useful medical purpose and are therefore essentially obsolete. In 1961, under the United Nations’ Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, cannabis and its products were defined as dangerous narcotics with a high potential for abuse. The single convention prohibits production and supply of cannabis except under license for specific purposes, such as medical treatment and research. It also enforces member states to ensure national drug policy is compliant with this international drug treaty. Medicinal cannabis can, therefore, only be made available to patients by establishing a government run national medicinal cannabis programme. Countries like the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Canada, Australia, and the Czech Republic already have an official cannabis programme that is in full agreement with the Single Convention.

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