FIGURE 2.1 The Chinese ideogram for marijuana (“ma”) shows two plants, male and female, under a drying shed. (Drawing from Cannabis in Medical Practice, M. L. Mathre, ed., McFarland and Company, Inc., 1997, p. 36.)

toxicant, medicine, and fiber. The earliest known descriptions of marijuana appear in the ancient writings and folklore of India and China, where historians believe it was first used as a ritual intoxicant. Eventually, marijuana was put to common use in folk medicine, usually in the form of a tea or edible extract. The medicinal use of smoked marijuana is largely a recent phenomenon.1

According to Chinese legend, the emperor Shen Nung (circa 2700 B.C.; also known as Chen Nung) discovered marijuana's healing properties as well as those of two other mainstays of Chinese herbal medicine, ginseng and ephedra. In a compendium of drug recipes compiled in 1 A.D., based on traditions from the time of Shen Nung, marijuana is depicted as an ideogram of plants drying in a shed (see Figure 2.1). This ancient text, which is considered to be the world's oldest pharmacopoeia, recommends marijuana for more than 100 ailments, including gout, rheumatism, malaria, and absentmindedness. Centuries later a Chinese medical text (1578 A.D.) described the use of marijuana to treat vomiting, parasitic infections, and hemorrhage. Marijuana continues to be used in China as a folk remedy for diarrhea and dysentery and to stimulate the appetite.2

In India, marijuana has been associated with magic and religion—as well as healing—for thousands of years. Practitioners of traditional Ayurvedic medicine still prescribe marijuana to promote sleep, appetite, and digestion as well as to relieve pain; it is also considered an aphrodisiac and intoxicant.

By contrast, ancient Greek and Roman physicians cautioned that excess use of marijuana could dampen sexual performance.3 Despite this drawback, Galen (2 A.D.) and Pliny the Elder (circa 25 A.D.) as well as Discorides—a doctor in the army of the Roman emperor Nero (1 A.D.)—recommended marijuana as a treatment for a variety of ailments, including earache.

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