Historical perspective on the medical use of cannabis for epilepsy: Ancient times to the 1980s

Published:January 14, 2017DOI:


      • Cannabis has been used by numerous civilizations as medicine for millennia.
      • There has have been reports of cannabis improving seizure control for over 2000 years.
      • This historical record provides justification for scientific studies for ongoing preclinical and clinical exploration of the anti-seizure properties of cannabinoids and other components of the the cannabis plant.


      There has been a dramatic surge in the interest of utilizing cannabis for epilepsy treatment in the US. Yet, access to cannabis for research and therapy is mired in conflicting regulatory policies and shifting public opinion. Understanding the current state of affairs in the medical cannabis debate requires an examination of the history of medical cannabis use. From ancient Chinese pharmacopeias to the current Phase III trials of pharmaceutical grade cannabidiol, this review covers the time span of cannabis use for epilepsy therapy so as to better assess the issues surrounding the modern medical opinion of cannabis use.
      This article is part of a Special Issue titled Cannabinoids and Epilepsy.


      To read this article in full you will need to make a payment

      Purchase one-time access:

      Academic & Personal: 24 hour online accessCorporate R&D Professionals: 24 hour online access
      One-time access price info
      • For academic or personal research use, select 'Academic and Personal'
      • For corporate R&D use, select 'Corporate R&D Professionals'


      Subscribe to Epilepsy & Behavior
      Already a print subscriber? Claim online access
      Already an online subscriber? Sign in
      Institutional Access: Sign in to ScienceDirect


        • Schultes R.E.
        Man and marihuana.
        Nat Hist. 1973; 82: 59
        • Booth M.
        Cannabis: a history.
        1st Picador ed. Picador, New York2005 ([xiv, 429 p.p.])
        • Aldrich M.
        • Mathre M.
        History of therapeutic cannabis.
        in: Mathre M Cannabis in medical practice. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, Publishers1997: 35-55
        • Russo E.B.
        History of cannabis and its preparations in saga, science, and sobriquet.
        Chem Biodivers. 2007; 4: 1614-1648
        • Russo E.B.
        The pharmacologic history of cannabis.
        in: Pertwee R.G. Handbook of cannabis. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK2014: 23-43
        • Lozano I.
        The therapeutic use of Cannabis sativa L. in Arabic medicine.
        J Cannabis Ther. 2001; 1: 63-70
        • O'Shaughnessy W.B.
        On the preparations of the Indian hemp, or gunjah (Cannabis indica).
        in: Transactions of the medical and physical society of Bengal. 1840: 71-102
        • O'Shaughnessy W.B.
        On the preparations of the Indian hemp, or gunjah: Cannabis indica their effects on the animal system in health, and their utility in the treatment of tetanus and other convulsive diseases.
        Prov Med J Retrosp Med Sci. 1843; 5: 363
        • Gowers W.R.
        A manual of diseases of the nervous system.
        P. Blakiston, Son & Company, 1898
        • Gowers W.
        Epilepsy and other chronic convulsive disorders.
        Churchill, London1881
        • Reynolds J.R.
        Therapeutical uses and toxic effects of Cannabis indica.
        Lancet. 1868; 1: 637-638
        • Kalant H.
        Medicinal use of cannabis: history and current status.
        Pain Res Manag. 2001; 6: 80-91
        • Pain S.
        A potted history.
        Nature. 2015; 525: S10-S11
        • Davis J.P.
        • Ramsey H.H.
        Antiepileptic action of marijuana-active substances.
        Fed Proc. 1949; 8: 284-285
        • Mechoulam R.
        • Shvo Y.
        • Hashish I.
        The structure of cannabidiol.
        Tetrahedron. 1963; 19: 2073-2078
        • Gaoni Y.
        • Mechoulam R.
        Isolation, structure, and partial synthesis of an active constituent of hashish.
        J Am Chem Soc. 1964; 86: 1646-1647
        • Keeler M.H.
        • Reifler C.B.
        Grand mal convulsions subsequent to marijuana use. Case report.
        Dis Nerv Syst. 1967; 28: 474-475
        • Consroe P.F.
        • Wood G.C.
        • Buchsbaum H.
        Anticonvulsant nature of marihuana smoking.
        JAMA. 1975; 234: 306-307
        • Feeney D.M.
        Letter: marihuana use among epileptics.
        JAMA. 1976; 235: 1105
        • Gordon E.
        • Devinsky O.
        Alcohol and marijuana: effects on epilepsy and use by patients with epilepsy.
        Epilepsia. 2001; 42: 1266-1272
        • Hamerle M.
        • Ghaeni L.
        • Kowski A.
        • Weissinger F.
        • Holtkamp M.
        Cannabis and other illicit drug use in epilepsy patients.
        Eur J Neurol. 2014; 21: 167-170
        • Ng S.
        • Brust J.C.
        • Hauser W.A.
        • Susser M.
        Illicit drug use and the risk of new-onset seizures.
        Am J Epidemiol. 1990; 132: 47-57
        • Hill A.J.
        • Hill T.D.M.
        • Whalley B.J.
        The development of cannabinoid based therapies for epilepsy.
        in: Onaivi E.S. Darmani N.A. Wagner E. Endocannabinoids: molecular, pharmacological, behavioral and clinical features: Bentham Science. 2013: 164-204
        • Perez-Reyes M.
        • Wingfield M.
        Letter: cannabidiol and electroencephalographic epileptic activity.
        JAMA. 1974; 230: 1635
        • Mechoulam R.
        • Carlini E.A.
        Toward drugs derived from cannabis.
        Naturwissenschaften. 1978; 65: 174-179
        • Cunha J.M.
        • Carlini E.
        • Pereira A.E.
        • Ramos O.L.
        • Pimentel C.
        • Gagliardi R.
        • et al.
        Chronic administration of cannabidiol to healthy volunteers and epileptic patients.
        Pharmacology. 1980; 21: 175-185
        • Ames F.R.
        • Cridland S.
        Anticonvulsant effect of cannabidiol.
        S Afr Med J. 1986; 69: 14
        • Trembly B.
        • Sherman M.
        Double-blind clinical study of cannabidiol as a secondary anticonvulsant.
        in: Marijuana '90 International Conference on Cannabis and Cannabinoids Kolympari, Crete, July 8–11. 1990
        • Gloss D.
        • Vickrey B.
        Cannabinoids for epilepsy.
        Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014; 3CD009270
        • Devane W.A.
        • Dysarz 3rd, F.A.
        • Johnson M.R.
        • Melvin L.S.
        • Howlett A.C.
        Determination and characterization of a cannabinoid receptor in rat brain.
        Mol Pharmacol. 1988; 34: 605-613
        • Devane W.A.
        • Hanus L.
        • Breuer A.
        • Pertwee R.G.
        • Stevenson L.A.
        • Griffin G.
        • et al.
        Isolation and structure of a brain constituent that binds to the cannabinoid receptor.
        Science. 1992; 258: 1946-1949
        • Feeney D.M.
        Marihuana and epilepsy: paradoxical anticonvulsant and convulsant effects.
        Adv Biosci. 1978; 22-23: 643-657
        • Rosenberg E.C.
        • Tsien R.W.
        • Whalley B.J.
        • Devinsky O.
        Cannabinoids and epilepsy.
        Neurotherapeutics. 2015; 12: 747-768