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The use of cannabis in traditional Chinese medicine


Over 2,000 years ago, Chinese physicians recommended crushing hemp seeds, mixing them with rhubarb and magnolia bark and boiling them before drinking the resulting liquid to help shift a stubborn poo.

They still do today.

One of the earlier appearances of cannabis in Western medical papers was in an 1843 medical article which heralded its effectiveness in treating cholera. It was also excitedly proclaimed that hemp (or ‘gunjuh’) could successfully be used to treat tetanus, joint pain, and seizures. The findings were a considerable breakthrough, given that four cholera outbreaks between 1832 and 1866 had caused the death of tens of thousands of Londoners. 

In fact, Queen Victoria’s private physician JR Reynolds prescribed Cannabis to her to help relieve period pain. It’s hard to Queen when you’re hunched over a hot water bottle, bursting into tears randomly and wanting to eat your own body weight in chocolate.

While the Western world was hailing medical marijuana as the future of modern medicine, (less than 50 years before they decided it was the devil’s weed) it was – literally – ancient history for China. The first recorded use of Cannabis as a medicine was between 2696 – 2737 BC in China by legendary Emperor Shen Nung – the same guy credited for inventing tea. 

Shen Nong cannabis
Shen Nong is said to have discovered the healing properties of cannabis

Known as da ma in Chinese medicine, cannabis is considered one of the 50 “fundamental” herbs. It first appears in The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica – one of three foundation books of Chinese medicine. Although written more than two millennia ago, the book – edited and expanded upon in the intervening two thousand years – is still in clinical use.

According to this text, cannabis is said to govern the five taxations (excessive use of the eyes, excessive lying, sitting, standing, and exercise), rule the seven damages (over-eating, cold food and drink, climatic extremes, rage, fatigue, grief, and fear) and benefit the five viscera (the heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, and spleen.) And it’s far from the only honourable mention the herb gets in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Around the sixth century AD, The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica was expanded, modernised and edited. Tao Hongjing added that cannabis can be used to “break accumulations, relieve impediment, and disperse pus.” So that’s pleasant. 

Around that time, another famous Chinese physician, Sun Simiao (581–683 AD), suggested using cannabis to treat pain. He recommended crushing the leaves to extract their juice to treat severe pain due to bone fractures in the 30-volume book Prescriptions Worth a Thousand Pieces of Gold for Emergencies.

His text also recommends cannabis for mental illness characterised by depression and a desire to be alone.

Another record of cannabis in treating pain comes from Su Song’s Illustrated Classic of Materia Medica, printed in 1070 AD. He recommends cannabis seed wine for pain treatment and claims that “by ten servings, the suffering will be alleviated; its effect cannot be surpassed.” Cannabis was first listed as an anaesthetic in Bian Que’s Heart Text of Bian Que (1127-1270 AD), who claimed that once mixed with other herbs, it would send the patient into a “stupor-slumber in which the person experiences no pain and is not harmed.”

Meanwhile, in the West, we had to wait until 1621 when English Clergyman Robert Burton suggested cannabis as a treatment for depression in his book The Anatomy of Melancholy. Since only a few people could read at that point, no one really paid any attention until over 200 years later, in 1833, when Irish physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessy made the first leap into medical testing in Western medicine.

Back in the East, texts from the 20th Century mention cannabis for mental illness, including Li Chenghu’s Pharmacognosy and Yang Huating’s Illustrated Analysis of Medicines. Between them, they suggest many conditions for which marijuana may be helpful, including agitation, hysteria, mania-withdrawal, and insomnia.

It wasn’t until 1928 that cannabis became a prohibited substance in the UK, when fears regarding the drugs’ influence led politicians to criminalise it across occupied territories, and then eventually in Britain itself. 

Even when the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, the benefits of cannabis were still being researched.  But in 1985, the People’s Republic of China joined the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, identified marijuana as a dangerous narcotic drug, and made it illegal to possess or use it. 

While hemp continues to be grown across many parts of China and is farmed for its fibres, other strains of marijuana are now illegal in China. Because of this, the only part of the plant currently used in traditional medicine is the seeds, known as Huo Ma Ren. Yet China remains one of the world’s most significant medical cannabis producers. 

According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, it owns 309 of the 606 patents relating to cannabis, and many of these are for herbal treatments. One, filed by the Yunan Industrial Cannabis Sativa Co, refers to an application made from whole cannabis Sativa seeds to make “functional food” to improve the immune system by increasing serum protein and sero-abluminous levels in the human body. 

Another, by an inventor called Zhang Hongqi, is for a “Chinese medicinal preparation” for treating peptic ulcers, with the formula using a multitude of ingredients, including the cannabis sativa seed. The filing says it has “significant therapeutic effectiveness and does not cause any adverse effect”. And there is also a patent for treating constipation,  made using Fructus Cannabis, sesame and almonds. This tea, it is claimed, treats the root cause of constipation and its many undesirable side effects and displays “obvious curative effects”.

As the Chinese would say: 换汤不换药 (huàn tāng bù huàn yào)  – different broth but the same old medicine.


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