Health, wellness, and weed: It’s a tricky topic, so let’s stick to the facts.

Whether you consider marijuana a gateway drug or a miracle cure, there’s no denying that pot’s place in our culture is undergoing some huge changes, thanks in part to the medical marijuana movement. In recent years, demand for medical marijuana access has exploded among citizens and medical professionals alike.

Medical cannabis (and cannabinoid compounds, including the psychoactive ingredient THC) is used to reduce nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy, to relieve certain AIDS symptoms, and to treat pain and muscle spasms, among many other things. The long-term effects of marijuana use are still being researched and debated. So far, there’s no verdict on its long-term impact on memory and cognition, or the risk of dependency.

But as far as experts are concerned, the therapeutic benefits of medical marijuana are no longer up for debate. Not convinced? Here’s a list of national and international organizations that have declared support for medical marijuana:

  • The American Academy of HIV Medicine (AAHIVM)
  • American Anthropological Association
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
  • The American Nurses Association (ANA)
  • The American Public Health Association (APHA)
  • Arthritis Research Campaign
  • British Medical Association
  • HIV Medicine Association of the Infectious Diseases Society of America
  • The Lymphoma Foundation of America (LFA)
  • The National Association for Public Health Policy
  • Epilepsy Foundation
  • National Black Police Association
  • The National Nurses Society on Addictions
  • The Episcopal Church
  • The Presbyterian Church USA
  • The United Church of Christ
  • The United Methodist Church’s Board of Church and Society
  • The Union of Reform Judaism
  • The Unitarian Universalist Association

Frankly, the recent rise of medical marijuana should come as no surprise. Weed’s use as a medicine stretches back thousands of years. Cannabis is one of the 50 “fundamental” herbs in traditional Chinese medicine, and reference to its medical use appear in texts from ancient Egypt, Greece, India, and beyond. Even in the West, marijuana was totally legal — and commonly recommended by physicians — until the 1920s, when it got swept up in the first big wave of pharmaceutical regulations. Plus, there was a little thing called Prohibition.

But since the 1970s, the movement to restore marijuana’s reputation as a valuable therapeutic and medicinal herb has only grown. Even though the federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the category reserved for drugs that have “no currently accepted medical use,” state governments have been quietly allowing medical marijuana use for years. And in the 21st century, some states (Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon as of 2015) have voted to legalize it outright. So how did pot end up on this rollercoaster ride from natural medicine to dangerous drug and back again?

Cannabis Before the 1930s

The oldest written record of cannabis usage comes from the Greek historian Herodotus, who in the year 440 BCE described the central Eurasian practice of taking cannabis steam baths. “The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed [likely flowers], and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy.” Interesting. We wonder if they had deals for Spa Week?

Western medicine embraced pot, as well, using it to treat muscle spasms, stomach cramps, and for general pain relief. Cannabis crops also provided early Americans with a variety of hemp products like rope and cloth, making it one of the most important colonial exports. Stoners love to bring it up, but it’s true: George Washington did grow weed on Mount Vernon. Lots of it.

Ganja’s Fall from Grace

Until the early 1900s, the pharmaceutical market was kind of bananas. Without official standards or regulations, drug companies were able to mix and market their products however they wanted. “Secret ingredients” and misleading labels were common, as were over-the-counter remedies packed full of cocaine and morphine.

Perhaps even more shockingly, the United States Congress actually did something about that. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 cracked down on the pharmaceutical market by requiring certain special drugs to be labeled with their contents. This was the first of many regulations designed to help consumers make more informed choices.

Around the same time, “hashish parlors” had become popular in major cities, and not for their medical services. Let’s not forget, after all: Most types of weed do get you high. Hashish parlors gave upper-class types a way to take a walk on the wild side without sinking into the world of opium dens. They also raised eyebrows among the public, and weed’s status as medicinal herb suffered from its new trendy use as a “fashionable narcotic.”

By the time of the Prohibition era, recreational marijuana had attracted enough negative attention from the government to overshadow its importance to physicians and their patients. When the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was formed in 1930, it immediately made it a goal to outlaw all recreational drugs. Finally, in 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act made it illegal to possess or exchange cannabis in the United States. Because the federal government had no ability to regulate medicines at the time, tax law was the only way to crack down on pot.

The American Medical Association protested the government’s decision to outlaw marijuana. But as usual in these cases, there were other motives behind the decision than a concern for the American public. Namely, the paper industry. Many scholars believe that the campaign to demonize cannabis was really meant to destroy the hemp fiber industry. Why? Companies like DuPont (and its investors in the federal government, like Andrew Mellon, the Secretary of the Treasury) wanted to maximize the profitability of wood-based paper and DuPont’s newest invention, synthetic nylon. Because hemp was a cheaper raw material for paper and textiles, outlawing cannabis just so happened to eliminate DuPont’s competition.

Medical Marijuana Returns

In 1978, a man named Robert Randall sued the federal government after he was arrested for using cannabis to treat his glaucoma. And he won. The judge ruled that Randall needed medical marijuana, and ordered the Food and Drug Administration to set up a cannabis farm program to provide Randall and other patients with cannabis cigarettes. George H. W. Bush closed down the program after Randall tried to get HIV/AIDS patients included in the program, but those who were still enrolled continued to receive their medical marijuana. Today, seven people are still being shipped cannabis cigarettes from the federal government thanks to Randall’s case, but marijuana still remains a Schedule I drug.

Across the country, however, states have begun to go around federal law and take matters into their own hands. Since 1973, states like Oregon, Colorado, Alaska, Ohio, California, Missisippi, North Carolina, New York, and Nebraska have decriminalized cannabis to some degree. And since 2012, several states have fully legalized medical and non-medical marijuana use.

Charlotte’s Web and the Future of Weed

What if you could get all the benefits of medical marijuana without getting stoned? That’s the promise of Charlotte’s Web, a modern strain of medical cannabis that contains less than 0.3% THC. In other words, Charlotte’s Web delivers a high dose of therapeutic cannabidiol content without producing the “high” that comes with common recreational marijuana varieties.

Charlotte’s Web is named after Charlotte Figi, an eight-year-old girl who suffers epileptic seizures brought on by Dravet syndrome. After trying the new low-THC weed, her parents and doctors reported that her seizures got better. Now families across the country are flocking to Colorado to get access to Charlotte’s Web, and the explosion of demand has sparked calls for more research, as well as new legislation to reflect CBD-only varieties of medical marijuana.

Today, with medical marijuana dispensaries operating all over the West, the medical community pushing for cannabis to be removed from Schedule I, and more and more citizens questioning marijuana’s illegal status, it appears it’s only a matter of time before marijuana’s reputation goes back to normal. As the New York Times concluded in a series of articles in July 2014, “…it is long past time to repeal this version of the Prohibition.”

Already the changing tides are plain to see. Just look at all of the cannabis-based health and beauty products that have been making waves since Colorado took the plunge and legalized. How long will it be before we think of marijuana as just another natural herb with its own special qualities? The times are a-changing. Again.

Photo Credit: Bogdan Giuşcă

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