In the United States, as of September 2018, medical cannabis use is legal in 31 states, plus the territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Northern Mariana Islands, and the District of Columbia. Sixteen other states allow medical cannabis but only for low-THC/high-CBD content products.
The medical use of marijuana is nothing new. Ancient physicians in Egypt, China, and India used cannabis to treat various ailments. In western medicine, cannabis use was popularized in the 1830s by Irish physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessy who wrote about its analgesic and anticonvulsant effects while living in India. O’Shaughnessy returned from India in 1842 with a hefty supply of cannabis, at which point medical marijuana became popular in England and the USA.
Cannabis made its first entry into the United States Pharmacopeia in 1850 as a treatment for a wide variety of disorders including: alcoholism, snakebite, gout, leprosy, anthrax, opiate addiction, rabies, cholera, dysentery, typhus, tetanus, insanity, tonsillitis, convulsive disorders, excessive menstrual bleeding, and more. The drug was readily available in pharmacies and general stores during the late 1800s and didn’t require a prescription. The most common tinctures were made by Eli Lilly, Parke-Davis, and ER Squibb & Sons.
However, by the early 20th century, medical marijuana use had declined. Dosage control, the advent of hypodermic needles, as well as the rise in popularity of opiates made other drugs easier to administer with faster efficacy (since cannabis isn’t water soluble, it cannot be injected).
In addition, prohibition hysteria around alcohol fueled anti-marijuana sentiment and by 1936, cannabis was no longer available as an over-the-counter remedy in any state. When the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 prohibited all non-medical use of cannabis – a move that was unsuccessfully opposed by the American Medical Association – cannabis was removed from the US Pharmacopeia in 1941.
During the 1960s, more and more people began using marijuana recreationally and the plant saw a resurgence in interest in its medical properties. However, marijuana was banned from even medical use following the passage of the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. In this legislation, marijuana was classified as a Schedule I drug with “a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.” Despite this legal obstacle, many patients swore to marijuana’s ability to negate the adverse effects of chemotherapy, epilepsy, and other conditions. Many patients would go to great lengths to obtain marijuana for personal medical use.
Since the 1970s, many efforts took place seeking to place cannabis in a less restrictive category – but none have succeeded. Today, nearly fifty years later, medical marijuana has become more widely accepted as a viable treatment for various conditions. The first state to legalize medical cannabis was California in 1996. With 31 states currently allowing medical marijuana use and others contemplating legalization, the future looks brighter for people who wish to use marijuana legally for treatment. Currently, cannabis remains a prohibited substance at the federal level. However, in December 2014, the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment was signed into law. The amendment prohibits the Justice Department from spending funds to interfere with the implementation of individual state medical cannabis laws.
Public support for allowing medical use of marijuana is high; public support has grown from 73% in favor in 1999, to 94% in 2017.