By Patrick Stack, with Claire Suddath Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009
On Oct. 19, the U.S. Justice Department announced that federal prosecutors would not pursue medical-marijuana users and distributors who comply with state laws, formalizing a policy at which the Obama Administration hinted earlier this year. Currently, 13 states allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to patients suffering from ailments ranging from AIDS to glaucoma, and in Maryland a prescription can soften punishment if a user faces prosecution. But until now those laws didn't provide any protection from federal authorities. (Read "Can Marijuana Help Rescue California's Economy?")
Should Professors Cheech and Chong ever receive university tenure teaching the medical history of their favorite subject, the course pack would be surprisingly thick. As early as 2737 B.C., the mystical Emperor Shen Neng of China was prescribing marijuana tea for the treatment of gout, rheumatism, malaria and, oddly enough, poor memory. The drug's popularity as a medicine spread throughout Asia, the Middle East and down the eastern coast of Africa, and certain Hindu sects in India used marijuana for religious purposes and stress relief. Ancient physicians prescribed marijuana for everything from pain relief to earache to childbirth. Doctors also warned against overuse of marijuana, believing that too much consumption caused impotence, blindness and "seeing devils."
By the late 18th century, early editions of American medical journals recommend hemp seeds and roots for the treatment of inflamed skin, incontinence and venereal disease. Irish doctor William O'Shaughnessy first popularized marijuana's medical use in England and America. As a physician with the British East India Company, he found marijuana eased the pain of rheumatism and was helpful against discomfort and nausea in cases of rabies, cholera and tetanus.
The sea change in American attitudes toward pot came at the end of the 19th century, when between 2% and 5% of the U.S. population was unknowingly addicted to morphine, a popular secret ingredient in patent medicines with colorful names like "The People's Healing Liniment for Man or Beast" and "Dr. Fenner's Golden Relief." To prevent more of the country from being washed over with a morphine-induced golden relief, the government introduced the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, creating the Food and Drug Administration. While it didn't apply to marijuana and merely brought the distribution of opium and morphine under doctors' control, the regulation of chemical substances was a major shift in American drug policy. (See pictures of cannabis culture.)