Updated on January 30, 2019. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Richard Koffler, MD, Board Certified Physiatrist
In 1839 William O’Shaughnessy, an assistant surgeon and professor of chemistry at the Medical College of Calcutta, was the first notable doctor to present a scientific research paper on the medical application of marijuana for the “treatment of tetanus and other convulsive diseases.” O’Shaughnessy stated that there was possibly more the cannabis plant than previous people had expected and that it should remain an “addition to the resources of the physician.” In the same year, he published his paper, On the Preparation of the Indian Hemp or Gunja. This encouraged other scientists to experiment with the cannabis plant, and ultimately open the door to medical marijuana research.
In 1963 Israeli researcher Dr. Raphael Mechoulam synthesized cannabidiol, which is structurally similar to THC but not identical. This led him to team up with colleague Dr. Yehiel Gaoni, to determine the biosynthetic pathway that the cannabis plant uses to create THC. Shortly after, Dr. Mechoulam and Dr. Gaoni were able to isolate the THC effectively from cannabis, and several months later they had synthesized THC in their laboratory. The work that Dr. Mechoulam and Dr. Gaoni conducted opened many doors to other researchers that were interested in the therapeutic effects of cannabinoids, THC in particular.
Since then, numerous private research institutions and government funded organizations have conducted medical marijuana research studies on cannabinoids and the endogenous cannabinoid 1 and 2 receptors that are found in different organs in the body. The first researchers to do so were Allyn Howlett and William Devane in 1988, from St. Louis University Medical School. Following a similar path, many other researchers have tried to publish medical marijuana research articles on the possible therapeutic effect of cannabis, but since the federal ban on marijuana possession in 1937, navigating though the proper channels to conduct medical marijuana research in the United States has been more arduous.
Leo Hollister of the Stanford University School of Medicine declared in 1986 that “compared with other licit social drugs, such as alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, marijuana does not pose greater risks.” This statement was monumental coming out of such a prestigious institution. Previous medical marijuana research studies had suggested that smoking cannabis would lead to brain damage. However, researchers began to prove flawed in their methodology.
One of the most prominent studies used by former President Ronald Regan to dissuade children from smoking marijuana was that it increased the number of damaged brain cells in Rhesus monkeys. But the methods of the experiment were flawed because they did not administer the marijuana smoke the monkeys properly. Instead of administering thirty joints (marijuana cigarette) a day over a year long period, Heath gave the monkeys equivalent of 63 joints in five minutes, through gas masks, losing no smoke. This method of administration would have suffocated the monkeys and given them brain damage from the carbon monoxide alone. In addition, Heath never even mentioned the possibility of carbon monoxide as a contributing factor in his paper, and his results have not been substantiated since. It is clear that these studies were published under pressure from political figures and many were not conducted properly and ethically.