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Cannabis was used medicinally in the Western world from the mid-1800s through 1940, even though doctors did not understand cannabis’s mechanisms of action. The Marijuana Tax At of 1937 Federally banned the use of cannabis in the US for either medical or recreational uses, and it restricted scientific studies of cannabis. Nonetheless, from 1937 through the late 1970s, cannabis research proceeded internationally, as did illegal uses of cannabis for both recreational and medical purposes.

Grass roots activists in the US have been demonstrating to legalize cannabis for medical use at least since the 1970s.[1] Yet, medical cannabis remained uniformly illegal until 1978, when the US Government was legally forced to make medical marijuana available to select patients, initially for use in treating glaucoma, and later for treatment of patients with HIV/AIDS. This compassionate use program was shut down in 1991.[2] The AIDS epidemic and Gulf War ushered in the 1990s. America’s focus shifted away from the War on Drugs and toward medical cannabis and the Middle East. [3] Soon thereafter, in 1996, California legalized cannabis for medical uses within the State. Over the next two and a half decades, 32 more states, together with the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands, followed California’s lead in legalizing cannabis for medical use.[4]

The AIDs crisis created an urgent, medical rationale for more overt use of medical cannabis. However, it was the discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) during the late 1980s and early 1990s that truly legitimized cannabis for medical use and paved the way for the current flood of medical cannabis research. An influx of new research is discovering the pervasive workings of the ECS in our bodies. These new discoveries provide a glimpse into the tremendous potential of cannabis for enhancing our health and well-being.

This sequence of events begs the question: If medical cannabis research had not been restricted in 1937, would the ECS – together with its wealth of associated health and wellness benefits – have been discovered earlier?

To answer the question, we must examine the state of science and technology during the 20th century. Restrictions on research surely caused difficulties in securing funding and/or cannabis samples for research. And if these restriction were the primary constraints on the advancement of discovery, then we may conclude that the ECS may very well have been discovered earlier than it was. If, however, limitations on advancements in complementary science and technology played a role in delaying the course of discoveries on the ECS, then we cannot conclude that but-for restrictions on cannabis research, the ECS likely would have been discovered sooner.

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