January 26, 2014 Updated: January 27, 2014 at 9:11 am
One night in 1839, a woman knocked at the door of a British Army doctor named William O'Shaughnessy who was stationed in India. The woman's infant was having seizures and needed help. The doctor tried several 19th-century remedies, including opium and leeches, but the convulsions grew worse over several days until the baby stopped eating and was convulsing almost constantly.
Not knowing what else to do, the doctor tried hemp, which the locals used as medicine.
A few drops of a cannabis tincture under the child's tongue stopped the seizures almost immediately. Regular doses over the next few weeks brought the convulsions to an end.
"The child is now in enjoyment of robust health and regained her natural plump and happy appearance," O'Shaughnessy later wrote in a medical journal article, titled "On the preparation of Indian Hemp or Gunjah."
He concluded that, "In Hemp the profession has gained an anti-convulsive remedy of the greatest value."
When a few Colorado Springs families started treating their epileptic children with marijuana oil in 2012, the treatment was unknown to the modern medical establishment and the parents thought they were making the discovery for the first time. In fact, they were uncovering once widespread knowledge that had been lost or ignored during the decades-long nearly global prohibition against using marijuana as medicine.
Historical documents show that people have known for centuries that cannabis could quell seizures. In modern times, scientific studies have repeatedly shown its potential as treatment for epilepsy. But a combination of restrictive drug laws, stigma in the medical establishment and lack of funding for research caused findings to be stifled or dismissed for decades, cannabis researchers say.
The potential human cost of ignoring the evidence for so long is hard to overstate. Of the 3 million people in the United States with epilepsy, an estimated 500,000 are not helped by current medications, according to The American Epilepsy Society. About 50,000 die each year from seizures.
"Imagine if people could have had access to this in the '50s, or the '70s, when studies suggested it worked. Imagine how many people could have been helped," said Paige Figi, the first mother in Colorado Springs to treat her epileptic daughter with locally grown strain of marijuana. Five-year-old Charlotte had hundreds of seizures per day and had tried every available seizure drug without success. She was not expected to live long. The Figis had read some decades-old studies suggesting a compound in cannabis called cannabidiol could help. Desperate, they started giving Charlotte a local marijuana strain high in the compound. It reduced her seizures by 99.9 percent. She is now thriving.
Charlotte's success sparked a small movement, with dozens of families who have not been helped by trying traditional treatments moving to Colorado, where the oil is produced.
Media reports featuring the Figis were the first most of these families had heard of treating seizures with cannabis, but, in fact, reports of treating seizures with cannabis stretch back more than 500 years.
"I'm a mom, I don't have a Ph.D. Why did we have to stumble onto this?" Paige Figi said. "We feel like science has failed us. I think it's unfortunate it has to be parents figuring this out, and science has to catch up."
Cannabis is very useful
The first known reference to the anti-seizure potential of cannabis, according to a number of academic papers, comes from an Arabic treatise from 1464 that describes how the epileptic son of a high-ranking official in Baghdad was cured by regular administration of hashish.
After returning from India, Dr. O'Shaughnassy lectured extensively in Great Britain in the 1840s on the properties of hemp and its use as a medicine in Europe became widespread.
Sir John Russell Reynolds, the personal physician to Queen Victoria, wrote in The Lancet in 1890 on the many therapeutic uses of cannabis, saying "I have found hemp very useful" for treating epilepsy.
In America, a publication called the Philadelphia Medical Times ran an article titled "Cannabis indica in the treatment of epilepsy" in 1878.
By 1900, cannabis extracts were commonly found in American pharmacies.
But, as the 20th century progressed, cannabis fell out of favor, according to the book "Cannabis in Medical Practice." Unlike opium and cocaine, the active ingredients in cannabis were harder to parse, and were not isolated until the middle of the 20th century. Pharmacists were left with a whole plant extract that could vary greatly in makeup and potency. At the same time, states were increasingly passing laws tightening control on recreational use of the plant. It was effectively banned federally by the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act.
That year, during hearings in front of the House Committee on Ways and Means, the American Medical Association spoke against criminalizing cannabis, saying many of its members prescribed it. But the committee was swayed by the testimony of the assistant commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, who said, "Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind. Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes."
Medical advances stunted
The passage of the act ended the use of medical cannabis and led to a decades-long suppression of medical marijuana research that only started to lift with California's first-in-the-nation medical marijuana law in 1996.
"Looking back, a lot of this reefer madness stuff seems ridiculous but it is also one of the great tragedies of modern medicine," said Martin Lee, author of the book "Smoke Signals, a social history of marijuana." "It impeded all kinds of medical advances. Think of all the knowledge we lost. Think of all the time we lost. We have been forced to rediscover things that were there all along. And in the meantime, these poor kids."
Even in the most restrictive years of marijuana laws, scientific studies continued to show cannabis could treat epilepsy - especially cannabidiol.
In 1949, two doctors tested marijuana compounds with six severely epileptic children. The substance controlled seizures as well as traditional drugs with three of the children, and stopped or nearly stopped all seizures in two.
"The Future for epileptics appears very bright," an article about the findings in the Salt Lake City Telegram said. "Because of not only one new drug, but a whole field of new compounds to combat epileptic seizures."
But the research went nowhere.
Similar studies in 1974, '79, '80, '81, '82 and several times since showed cannabidiol's promising properties for regulating seizures, but each time they failed to bridge the gap from laboratory to medicine cabinet.
"There are a number of barriers to research," said Jeffrey Hergenrather, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, who studies the anti-cancer properties of cannabis.
First, he said, money is lacking because most research is funded by pharmaceutical companies, which have little to gain from a plant that can't be patented.
Second, because cannabis is a tightly controlled substance, he said, research involves extra regulatory steps, including having the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency inspections that discourage many researchers.
Third, the medical establishment long had a dismissive attitude toward the research, he said.
"It is seen by some as not serious. There is a stigma. It is difficult to get your findings published," he said.
In addition, he said, doctors are hesitant to recommend cannabis because many have little knowledge of how it interacts with the human body.
"There is a whole system of chemical receptors in the human body that interacts with cannabis, and they are not taught it in medical school at all," Hergenrather said. "That shows the profound effect prohibition has had."
Cannabis now drawing attention
Now that 20 states have some kind of legalized medical marijuana, anecdotal evidence of people using cannabis to treat a number of ailments is getting the attention of mainstream medicine, and attitudes toward cannabis are starting to change, he said.
Orrin Devinsky, a New York University neurologist who specializes in epilepsy, illustrates that.
In his 2012 book "Alternative therapies for epilepsy," he wrote marijuana was "not recommended to treat epilepsy." But in late 2013, after increasing anecdotal evidence of the therapeutic potential of cannabis coming out of Colorado Springs, he held a symposium in New York on the potential of cannabidiol and began a Food and Drug Administration-approved study of the treatment of epilepsy in children with the cannabis compound cannabidiol.
"At this time, medical marijuana products show great potential for helping patients with treatment-resistant epilepsy," Devinsky told The Gazette. "However, at the current time, we lack either good safety or effectiveness data on any product. Our focus should be to obtain scientifically valid data and to remain very humble about what we do and do not know."
Follow Dave Philipps on Twitter: @David_Philipps
TIMELINE ON MEDICAL USE OF CANNABIS
1464: Arab historian Ibn al-Badri writes that when "the epileptic son of the caliph's chamberlain" in Baghdad was treated with cannabis "it cured him completely."
1839: British doctor Dr. William O'Shaughnessy, left, says experiments with cannabis in India "led me to the belief that in Hemp the profession has gained an anti-convulsive remedy of the greatest value."
1890: The personal physician to Queen Victoria, writes in The Lancet in 1890 on the medical uses of cannabis, saying "I have found hemp very useful" for treating epilepsy.
1900: Tincture of cannabis becomes a common medicine in American pharmacies.
1937: Medical cannabis effectively outlawed by Marihuana Tax Act.
1949: Two doctors give cannabis to five epileptic children. Three did as well as on other drugs. One had significant improvement, and one had seizures disappear entirely.
1977: Study of rats shows cannabidiol works as well as other anti-seizure drugs.
1980: Double blind study shows seven of eight human epileptics helped by cannibidiol, with seizures stopping entirely in half.
2003: British company GW Pharamaceuticals announces it plans to market a marijuana-based cannabidiol drug for epilepsy, with hopes of quick approval by the FDA. It has yet to be approved.
2012: Colorado Springs mom Paige Figi begins treating her 5-year-old daughter, Charlotte, with a marijuana oil rich in cannadidiol, sparking a small movement to make the treatment available to all epileptics.