From medicine to poison and back: History of cannabis in Europe and the UK


Nowadays, everywhere in the US and EU, governments and scientists seem to be recognizing the medicinal value of cannabis and its compounds, such as cannabidiol (CBD) or even tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). However, and although this seems to be a demonstration of progress and open-mindedness, History shows that it’s nothing new.

Cannabis’ medical use has been widely recognized throughout History but, due to political and social entanglements, the notions changed, and so did the law.

David Nutt, professor of Neuropsychopharmacology in the Imperial College of London and drugs expert, discusses cannabis uses throughout History and the difficulties that cannabis users may find in the current era, particularly in the UK.

His most recent essay, ‘Why medical cannabis is still out of patients’ reach’, discusses these issues and sheds light on the History of cannabis use. In the next few lines, we present the most important highlights of this essay.

From medicine to poison

According to Nutt, evidence suggests that cannabis was already being used for medical purposes 3000 years ago, in the Egyptian and Siberian civilizations. Similarly, the medical use of cannabis was described in Chinese and Indian ancient medical texts.

Particularly in Europe, cannabis was introduced in the UK in the late 1600s, and by the 1800s it was being widely used, especially in the form of alcoholic tinctures for treating tetanus and seizures. In fact, it is thought that even Queen Victoria used cannabis medicines, most likely for the relief of period and childbirth pains.

Reportedly, cannabis medicinal preparations were being sold and used as over-the-counter medicines until the early 1930s. According to David Nutt, that was when a good old-fashioned “witch hunt” began.

In 1933, when the US Senate voted to remove the law of alcohol prohibition, the country was in serious risk of leaving around 35.000 officers of the Alcohol Prohibition Enforcement without a job. So, in order to avoid what would be a tough blow on the countries’ economy and society, the concerns regarding the dangers of alcohol consumption were, deliberately, transferred onto cannabis and other drugs.

Thus, the idea that cannabis was a dangerous drug began to grow and spread.

The term ‘cannabis’ was replaced by the Mexican term ‘marijuana’, with the intention of creating associations between the plant and illegal Mexican immigrants in the US, and a few fear-spreading measures and rumors were launched.

In fact, what was then considered the alcohol prohibition enforcement is now the US Drug Enforcement Administration (also known as DEA).

Interestingly, this didn’t just affect the US; the decision made by the US Senate also had a tremendous impact in the UK and the rest of Europe.

In 1934, cannabis was removed from the US Pharmacopeia, and the League of Nations’ health committee supported the claims that cannabis had no medicinal value and was a dangerous drug.

Following these claims, in 1961 the United Nations issued the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and the World Health Organization (WHO) classified cannabis as a schedule I controlled drug. In other words, cannabis became know as an unsafe substance without any medical use and a high potential for abuse.

Particularly in the UK, resistance to this change was offered, and cannabis continued to be used as a medicine until the enforcement of the Misuse of Drugs Act, in 1971, when it was officially classified as a schedule I drug.

And so, cannabis became “public enemy number 1”.

The case in the UK

Nutt argues that all these changes in the UK and the United Nations laws began due to pressure by the US. The country’s authorities firmly believed that, by restricting the medical use of cannabis, its recreational use would be restricted too, and so they pressured other organizations and countries to adhere to that line of thinking. Those claims were maintained for decades.

When in 1998 the House of Lords (the second chamber of the UK Parliament) recommended cannabis to be accepted as a medicine again, the UK government refused to adhere. Nutt recognizes that there was a great political interest in keeping cannabis illegal, and that was one of the reasons why the UK government didn’t adhere to the House of Lords’ recommendations.

And so, cannabis possession and distribution were seen, and punished, as a criminal act.

Moreover, the prohibition of use only made the number of users grow exponentially. According to Nutt, in 1971, fewer than half a million UK adults had used cannabis, while in 2005 they were already around 10 million.

As a result, citizens everywhere began to grow their own cannabis. However, without any kind of regulation, the plants were altered and, in many cases, contained very high amounts of THC and very low amounts of CBD.

Since obtaining cannabis through legal means wasn’t possible, as soon as the public began to use these types of “altered” cannabis, the health issues began. The plants didn’t have enough CBD to counteract the effects of THC, and so the plants had tremendously high psychoactive effects with severe issues, like psychotic tendencies and dependence. Following this, the media and other sources began to spread information about the dangers and harms of using cannabis.

In other words, making the recreational use of cannabis illegal didn’t lower the number of users (actually, it had the opposite effect), but made the access to controlled cannabis medicines impossible for patients.

From poison to medicine

Despite all the pressure from the US and the UN convention, the Netherlands’ government decided to allow the medicinal use of cannabis. With time, more European countries followed, and now more than 30 US states have also legalized medical cannabis.

However, until 2018, the UK remained impervious to this new shift in paradigm… until Billy Caldwell appeared.

Billy is a boy who suffered from a rare and severe form of childhood epilepsy, and his mother was desperately searching for a way to help him. After the UK government denied her request to obtain medical cannabis for her son, they traveled to the US and Canada to seek treatment. 

The treatment was so successful that Billy’s seizures had stopped completely, and his cognitive and motor functions improved tremendously.

However, when they returned, and despite the medical advice from a doctor in the UK who recognized the benefits and wanted to prescribe cannabis oil to Billy, the authorities refused and Billy’s condition worsened.

Billy Caldwell and his mother Charlotte. Source: Charles McQuillan/Getty images/The Guardian

Billy Caldwell and his mother Charlotte. Source: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images / The Guardian.

After a lot of suffering, finally, the government decided to give Billy a special authorization to use cannabis oil. As a result, his condition improved, and the seizures stopped.

Following this case, the UK authorities saw the medicinal value and decided to re-classify cannabis, limiting its prescription to licensed doctors and specialists.

However, it’s still very difficult for patients to get medical cannabis in the UK.

Despite the fact that millions of UK adults prefer to use cannabis for medical purposes, doctors are still reluctant to prescribe what was once considered a dangerous drug, and many of them fear side effects and dangers.

Nowadays, new research continuously comes to light, reporting possible benefits of cannabis and CBD use, and more doctors recognize cannabis’ medicinal value. As a demonstration of progress, the UK now has medical cannabis clinics and CBD oil cafes, and countries like Germany, Malta, and Portugal are preparing to become medical cannabis distributors.

This may very well be a new start, or perhaps just a return to the old ways.


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