Phytocannabinoid Therapeutics

By Owen Smith


The History of Cannabis Extraction

In the previous edition, I took a close look at how whole plant cannabis acts synergistically with our body chemistry to benefit a wide range of conditions. Simple whole plant medical cannabis products, or phytocannabinoid therapeutics, are often more effective, less expensive, and harbour fewer negative side-effects than synthetic pharmaceutical drugs. In this sense, these herbal medicines that were applied as far back as legendary Chinese emperor Shen Nung (Pen Ts’ao, 2700 BCE) were potentially more effective than the contentiously studied single-ingredient synthetic cannabis drugs of today.

In order to advance our understanding of the potential of phytocannabinoid therapeutics, it is helpful to look back through history at the many times and places that this plant has emerged into the local materia medica. Cannabis may be set for an archaic revival as modern science is now exploring the neuroprotective qualities discovered by emperor Nung close to 4500 years ago.

Shen Nung (the patron of pharmacists) may well have been a creation of Chinese folklore, as the Pen Ts’ao was compiled from ancient fragments around 150 BCE,1 however the recent archaeological discovery of a site of “789 grams of dried cannabis […] buried alongside a light-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian man, likely a shaman of the Gushi culture, near Turpan in northwestern China” dating back three millennia, adds credence to the legend. The Pen Ts’ao shares that “hemp grows along rivers and valleys at T’ai-shan, but it is now common everywhere.”

Bhang, Ganja, Charas

With wild cannabis growing in abundance, ancient medicine makers began to develop basic techniques to separate the desired ingredients from the crude plant matter. In the extensive review, History of Cannabis and Its Preparations in Saga, Science, and Sobriquet, Dr. Ethan Russo determines three categories of herbal cannabis: Bhang, Ganja, and Charas. Bhang is referred to as a mixture of flower, seed, leaf, and stalk; Ganja is the manicured, seedless, “feminized,” “sensimilla” flower buds alone; and Charas is resin collected by hand or by screen, commonly known as hashish.

Health Canada’s herbal cannabis product has recently been described as “literally just dust,”2 more closely resembling Russo’s Bhang, than the Ganja that has become the modern day standard in the west. Cannabis dispensaries often pride themselves on the quality and selection of their herbal Ganja.2 All parts of the plant can be used medicinally which makes Bhang useful for preparing edible and topical products. Dispensaries also provide a variety of Charas or hashish products that separate the cannabinoid rich resin glands from the vegetable mass. Ancient methods used to gather the plant’s resin include washing or beating the plant over fabric screens, or just rubbing the plant to gather the resin on one’s hands or body.

Cannabis Before Christ

Clay tablets found in the ancient city of Nineveh represent the collected medical knowledge of the first two centuries BCE in Mesopotamia. These document the early use of cannabis or A.ZAL.LA as an anticonvulsant taken orally, cutaneously, and as an enema.3 These ancient doctors utilized all parts of the plant to treat an extensive list of conditions from impotence to nocturnal epilepsy. In nearby India, an early Iyurvedic text, the Atharva Veda, exalts cannabis or bhanga as one of five herbs employed “to release us from anxiety.”4 The ingredients of the legendary Vedic holy drink Soma are hotly debated among academics. Author and historian Chris Bennett supplies compelling evidence for the inclusion of cannabis in his book Cannabis and the Soma Solution.

Egypt provides us with rich insight into the medical practices of the ancient world from the extensive papyrus that have been discovered and decoded. Three notable entries from the second millennium BCE are the Papyrus Ramesseum III: “A treatment for the eyes: celery; hemp is ground and left in the dew over night. Both eyes of the patient are to be washed with it early in the morning.”5 This could have been used to treat glaucoma or for the anti-inflammatory effects. The Ebers Papyrus records cannabis used for obstetrics: “ground in honey; introduced into her vagina to cool the uterus and eliminate its heat,”6 further suggesting anti-inflammatory properties. The Berlin Papyrus prescribes cannabis as an “ointment to prepare for driving away fever” and as a “plaster.”7

Although our translations of these ancient writings are subject to speculation, it is clear that the knowledge of this medicine was widespread throughout Ancient Egypt. It is a curious note, as Moses, the leader of the Hebrew people, receives the recipe for a holy anointing oil8 containing large amounts of cannabis or Kaneh Bosm soon after leaving Egypt. The highly revered anointing oil is later applied topically by Jesus and his followers to fight epilepsy, skin diseases, eye, and menstrual problems.9

Greek historian Herodotus wrote detailed accounts of Scythian vapour hotbox rituals around 450 BCE. “First they anoint and rinse their hair, then for their bodies, they lean three poles against one another, cover the poles with felted woollen blankets, making sure that they fit together as tightly as possible, and then put red-hot stones from the fire on to a dish which has been placed in the middle of the pole-and-blanket structure […] the Scythians take cannabis seeds, crawl in under the felt blankets, and throw the seeds on to the glowing stones. The seeds then emit dense smoke and fumes, much more than any vapour-bath in Greece. The Scythians shriek with delight at the fumes.”10

Cannabis in the Common Era

In China, where we find the earliest advancements in cannabis/hemp production (5000 BCE), Physicians beginning with Hoa-Tho (200 CE) prescribed cannabis mixed with wine as an analgesic during surgical procedures.11 The (570 CE) Taoist encyclopaedia Wushang Biyao (Supreme Secret Essentials), recorded adding cannabis into ritual censers. Sinologist and historian Joseph Needham believed that the founding scriptures of the Shangqing School of Taoism were written by Yang Xi (330-386 CE) during alleged visitations by Taoist immortals, “aided almost certainly by cannabis.”12

In the earliest known compendium of pharmacology in Arabic (9th Century), cannabis juice extract from the flowers and seeds is to be administered through the nostril to treat migraine, aching pains including uterine, and to prevent miscarriage.13 During this same period, the renowned physician and scientist Al-Kindi gave the first report of its muscle relaxant properties in relation to what was known as “the trembling.”14

One of the first of the great English botanists, John Parkinson, writes in 1640 that cannabis roots in a poultice are effective for treating tumours and other inflammation. “[…]the same decoction of the rootes, easeth the paines of the goute, the hard tumours, or knots of the joynts, the paines and shrinking of the sinewes, and other the like paines of the hippes: it is good to be used, for any place that hath beene burnt by fire, if the fresh juyce be mixed with a little oyle or butter”15

By the dawn of Western medicine, it was clear that cannabis was being used as a medicine in diverse ways for a wide range of conditions: successfully treating cholera,16 tetanus,17 and bubonic plague.18 Queen Victoria’s personal physician, Sir Russell Reynolds, prescribed cannabis for her menstrual cramps. He claims in the first issue of The Lancet, that cannabis “When pure and administered carefully, is one of the most valuable medicines we possess.”19

Cannabis in the Modern Era

The popular method of directly inhaling the smoke from crushed cannabis flowers didn’t begin until the 16th century, and the introduction of tobacco from the new world. Cannabis cigarettes were only smoked as a treatment for asthma. Inhaling the smoke from Ganja flowers is now the most common method patients use to medicate. This is in part due to the risk associated with processing cannabis and the de facto moratorium on phytocannabinoid research.

The scarcity of accurate information has previously isolated the cannabis culture into small groups preventing the development of articulated guides to cannabis medicine. The rising availability of the internet and discussion forums20 has given the culture a place to build upon their collective knowledge despite the slippery persistence of the drug war mythology.21

Cannabis prohibition is nearing its centennial in Canada, and the conditions it has created are now apparent. The persistent eradication of wild growing cannabis by law enforcement has driven gardeners to cultivate feminized Ganja indoors, in small spaces, for as much potency in as little time as possible, then either discarding or quickly processing the Bhang material into Charas. Due to the legal risks and scarcity of supply, the once free and abundant Charas is now valued in some forms22 at more than twice the price of gold.

Stronger than it used to be?

Prohibitionists currently claim that they are protecting society from high THC cannabis that is “much stronger than it was years ago,”23 however, the move to high THC cannabis strains began in 1840 when western physicians such as W.B. O’Shaughnessy began to draw wide attention to its use. Tests from the 1970s show THC levels as high as they are today.24 The recent rise in THC is consistent with the retreat of the plant into highly controlled, indoor grow operations.

Studies of sifted trichomes in Morocco and Afghanistan have revealed that “Cannabis fields in […] generations past would tend to yield equal proportions of THC and CBD.”25 This hyperbolic claim is further deluded by the advocacy of pure synthetic THC, which was created in 1964 and has consistently been shown inferior to whole plant cannabis. In past articles26 I have explained how CBD competes with THC for the CB1 cannabinoid receptor, effectively protecting vulnerable individuals from an undesirable THC dominant experience.

A Failed Drug War

Our modern era war on cannabis has been declared a failure27 by successive teams of scientists from around the world. Criminal punishments have not effectively deterred individuals from seeking out this undeniably useful medicine. The DEA’s own Judge Francis Young concluded at the end of a lengthy legal process in 1988 that “Marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.”28 I find it strangely ironic that modern day drug warriors celebrate a successful bust in the same manner that our primitive ancestors celebrated a successful boom, by openly burning large amounts of cannabis.29

Politicians and physicians continue to address the issue with lacklustre, pointing to the problem of smoking and reciting the carcinogenic properties of burnt vegetable matter. It has become apparent on our historical journey that not only is cannabis a diverse and effective medicine, but that this has been well known by diligent individuals since time immemorial. With even the most basic of techniques, these individuals separated the active ingredients from the vegetative mass, averting the feared pitfalls, to create medicines superior to their modern synthetic counterparts.

Whole Plant Horizons

Studying this dynamic and complex plant in an attempt to isolate and synthesize patented products for the pharmacy is a slow and expensive process that leaves those suffering now at a loss and in pain. The appeal for more of this kind of research is farsighted for the great number of people who have an immediate need for a steady supply of phytocannabinoid therapeutics from a local source.

Community dispensaries like the V-CBC are always trying to meet the diverse needs of their growing membership by focussing and expanding their product lines. The creation of seven different massage oil combinations (cannabis + Arnica, Comfrey, St. John’s Wart) has created an array of topical options for members seeking to treat circulation, respiratory, bone, deep muscle, nerve, and hormonal conditions. Publishing all of the methods and recipes online30 has helped members make their own medicine as the demand for the club’s products expands.

In the 1990s, scientists discovered the endocannabinoid system31 and the receptor sites for THC in our brain.32 In 2000, a study in Spain showed cannabis to “inhibit the growth of tumour cells in culture and animal models.”33 With research breaking out in areas where cannabis laws are loosening, there is a great deal of anticipation as to the miracles of healing that phytocannabinoid therapeutics still has to offer.

1. Y.Shou-zhong, The divine farmer As materia medica: A translation of the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, 1997, p.198
2. Steve DeAngelo at Harborside
3. R. C. Thompson, 1924, The Assyrian herbal, Luzac and Co., London, p. 2*, xxvii, 294.
4. Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, Report of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission, 1894, p.7 v.
5. Papyrus Ramesseum III, Plate A 26
6. P. Ghalioungui, 1987, The Ebers papyrus: a new English translation, commentaries and glossaries, Cairo, p.xv, 298.
7. T.Bardinet, 1995, Les papyrus medicaux de l’Egypte pharaonique :traduction inte´grale et commentaire, Fayard, Paris.
8. The Holy Bible, Exodus 30:22–25, pp.487–488
9. Cannabis linked to Biblical healing
10. Herodotus, The histories, Oxford University Press, Oxford [England], New York, 1998, p. li, 772.
11. M.S. Julien, C. R. Hebd. Seances Acad. Sci. 1849, 28, 223.
12. J. Needham, L. Gwei-Djen, 1974, ‘Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology; Part 2, Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Magisteries of Gold and Immortality’ Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,
13. Didier M. Lambert, 2009, Cannabinoids in Nature and Medicine, 38
14. W. P. Farquhar-Smith, M. Egertova, E. J. Bradbury, S. B. McMahon, A. S. Rice, M. R. Elphick,
2000, Mol. Cell Neurosci.15, 510.
15. J. Parkinson, T.Bonham, M.d.L’Obel, 1640, Theatrum botanicum: The theater of plants; p.[16], 1756
16. E.B. Russo, Cannabis in India: Ancient lore and modern medicine, Ed. R. Mechoulam,
BirkhUuser Verlag, Basel, 2005, pp.1–22.
17. 1972 National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse – Appendix, Chapter One, Part I
18. L.R. Aubert-Roche, De la peste, ou typhus d’Orient, Paris, 1843, p.400.
19. J.R. Reynolds, Lancet 1890, 1, 637.
21 U.S.D.E.A., 2010, Speaking out against drug legalization,
23. J. Kabelik, Z. Krejei, F. Santavy, Bull. 1960, Narcotics 12, 5.
24. D. C. Perry. 1977, Pharm.-Chem. Newsletter 6, 1.
25. Russo, 2007, History of Cannabis and its Preperations in Saga, Science, and Sobriquet
26. Smith, 2011. Cannabis Digest, Issue 30, Eating Cannabis as Medicine
27. Global war on drugs a failure, high-level panel says
28. US Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, “In the Matter of Marijuana Rescheduling Petition,” [Docket #86-22], (September 6, 1988), pp. 6, 58, 68.
29. 58 held in Mexico’s biggest marijuana farm bust

Owen Smith
Owen has been writing for the Cannabis Digest since 2009, covering a wide range of topics related to medical cannabis. Owen’s articles are closely related to his constitutional challenge to legalized cannabis edibles extracts and oils. He is the founder of Ethical Growth Consulting

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