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MARIJUANA AS MEDICINE?: The Science Beyond the Controversy
Marijuana's double nature—harmful intoxicant versus beneficial medicine—was debated at least as early as the fifteenth century. At that time, Muslim theologians were faced with the question of whether hashish (a potent drug made from marijuana resin) should be treated like alcohol, which is specifically forbidden by the Koran. In solving this dilemma the scholars distinguished between the use of hashish as an intoxicant, for which they recommended punishment by brutal whipping, and its permissible use as a medicine.4
Muslims also invented techniques to manufacture paper from hemp fibers, a process that was introduced to Europe during the twelfth century. Hemp remained an important component of most paper products until the mid-nineteenth century, when it was replaced by wood pulp. Arab traders are also thought to have conveyed their knowledge of hemp 's medicinal properties to Africa during medieval times. There marijuana came to be widely used to treat a variety of ailments, including snakebite, labor pains, malaria, and dysentery.5
By contrast, there is little evidence that marijuana was used as a medicine in medieval Europe. During the Renaissance, reports from explorers in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East piqued the interest of European herbalists, who also consulted the writings of Galen, Pliny, and other ancient physicians. Nevertheless, medical marijuana continued to be a rarity in the West.6 Meanwhile, demand for hemp fibers as a material for making rope and textiles—especially canvas for sails—grew so strong that by the sixteenth century European nations commanded their colonies to grow the crop. There is, however, no evidence that colonists used the plant for anything but its fiber. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that Western medicine “discovered” marijuana (see Figure 2.2).7
It was an Irish doctor, William O'Shaughnessy, who was largely responsible for acquainting his Western colleagues with marijuana's healing properties. O'Shaughnessy learned of the herb as a professor at the Medical College of Calcutta. In the 1830s, he created marijuana preparations and tested their effects on animals; convinced that they were safe, he began administering them to patients as a treatment for pain and muscle spasms. He also