If you lived in Britain in the 19th century and you were suffering from some aches and pains, cramps, sleeping problems or nausea the odds are that you would wander down to your local apothecary, hand over a few pennies or even shillings and take home a bottle of tincture of laudanum. And it worked, so well that Britain was consuming tons of the stuff every year. Women used it to alleviate menstrual pains, stressed out businessmen took it to calm them down, nurses served it by the spoonful to babies to ease the pain of teething. Since laudanum was little more than a solution of opium in pure alcohol, and the British were happily downing vast quantities of it, did the country go completely down the pan? Well, not quite, in fact helped along by vast quantities of alkaloid drugs and the fact that few of them ever drew a sober breath after the age of six the British went out and built the biggest empire that the world has ever seen.
Unfortunately, there was a major problem with laudanum. There were many different manufacturers with many different quality standards, some excellent and some downright criminal, so the purity of the drug varied enormously which meant that it was very difficult deciding just what was a correct dose and what was an excessive one. Add this to the fact that (a) the alkaloids in opium are very highly poisonous, and (b) basing the 'medicine' on alcohol made it incredibly popular, countless numbers of happy imbibers took just a little too much and ended up dead.
There was no such problem with another popular drug, marijuana, which worked very well indeed for a similar list of complaints and, since it was smoked rather than ingested, the effect was almost instantaneous. Far from being poisonous however, there has never been a recorded case of anyone dying of marijuana poisoning, and it has been calculated that a user would have to to smoke approximately half a ton of cannabis within about 10 minutes in order to absorb a fatal dose. The slight flaw in the ointment was that many people found it a little bit too relaxing, and got into the habit of lying back smoking weed instead of working to pay their taxes and support their families so, hardly surprisingly, it was banned during the early 20th century, and it is probably a complete coincidence that Britain lost its empire before that century was out!
What could not be ignored however was that cannabis had certain medical advantages which had been recognized for about 4000 years, but health services throughout the world could hardly give people suffering from pain a handful of dried leaves to smoke so eventually the active psychotic ingredient in marijuana, THC, was isolated and then manufactured synthetically. Unfortunately it did not work as well as smoking the leaf, possibly because the cannabis plant contains many other alkaloids as well as THC and it is possible that these were having a synergistic effect. It was not long before people suffering from cancer or multiple sclerosis were being hauled before the courts for smoking marijuana in order to ease their pains or the nausea caused by chemotherapy. The government, many of whose members I suspect had sampled marijuana in their youth, eventually downgraded the penalties for possession and use of the drug.
Is this an argument for the complete legalisation of cannabis? No. There are definite provable links between cannabis use and psychosis, although to be fair it is reasonable to ask which came first; did psychotic people take up cannabis for recreational use or did recreational use of cannabis cause psychosis? Statistics can of course be used to prove any argument whatsoever. The fact that it is an illegal drug in most countries of the world however makes it very difficult indeed to collect meaningful statistics on the medical benefits as well as the undesirable side-effects of cannabis use, and the only positive statement that we can make is that for the relief of many very distressing symptoms it works, works quickly, and side-effects are usually minimal and non toxic.
Copyright medicalmarijuanaworks.org 2009