09/18/2012 02:06 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

RxCannabis: A Pocket History

Marijuana has been used -- often expressly to alleviate symptoms -- throughout history and around the world. Charred cannabis seeds have been found in a Neolithic site in Europe (that's 4000 BCE). It was mentioned in an herbal published during the reign of Chinese Emperor Chen Nung about 1,000 years later, recommended for rheumatic pains, constipation, and other conditions. In India, it was noted for lowering fever, helping sleep, and improving digestion.

Still, there have been backlashes: in 1484, Pope Innocent the 8th declared cannabis an "antisacrament," banned in favor of wine in church rituals. Pope Innocent instigated several measures against witches in Germany -- possibly connected to the practice of witches including cannabis in their "flying ointment" which they coated their broom sticks with, before inserting into their vaginas.

In the mid-19th century, cannabis extract was one of the top three medical compounds used in prescription drugs made by many pharma companies still in existence today -- like Eli Lilly, Squibb, and Parke-Davis. More than 100 medical papers were published recommending it for various illnesses and conditions.

The great age of Prohibition started with alcohol in 1920. In 1932, Harry Anslinger, America's first Drug Czar, began his campaign against what was then usually called hemp, aided by the powerful mouthpiece of his newspaper magnate friend, William Randolph Hearst. It was the Depression, and Mexican immigrants were taking scarce jobs from whites. So -- using the race card -- they introduced for the first time the plant's Mexican name: marijuana.

The Marijuana Tax Act, passed in 1937, essentially made the tax for possession or transportation of cannabis so high, that its use almost disappeared.

One of cannabis' many medical uses is stimulating the appetites of emaciated AIDS patients, which helps them live longer. In 1996, 56% of California voters helped the state to become the first to legalize medical cannabis, for conditions ranging from AIDS and cancer, to chronic pain and spasticity. But the Federal government, since the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, with "no medical use." Every year, the DEA raids dozens of California medical cannabis dispensaries.

I've been working on a documentary about several California medical cannabis patients. One of them is Rudy Reyes, who lives in Santee, a suburb of San Diego. Rudy has been a medical cannabis patient and activist for more than seven years. He had never used marijuana until after he survived the 2003 Cedar Fire (at that time, the largest wildfire in CA history), running through a wall of flames that left him with 3rd degree burns over 70% of his body.

After morphine was proving less and less effective, one of Reyes' burn doctors suggested medical marijuana. After several weeks, it became clear that not only was his pain more manageable, but his blood pressure and levels of skin contraction had decreased. Reyes now uses a cannabis painkilling salve, and inhales it from a vaporizer (which makes it easier on his burn-scarred throat).

Fed up with the anti-medical-cannabis leanings of the San Diego County Supervisors, Rudy has himself run twice (in 2008 and early 2012) against incumbent Supervisor Diane Jacobs. Both times, he got more than 20% of the vote. Rudy told me, "Being a medical cannabis activist has been the perfect training for being a politician."

By 2012, 17 states (and the District of Columbia) have passed medical marijuana laws. Many activists say the best thing about the medical cannabis movement has been its success in showing that the side effects and addictive dangers of cannabis are no more serious, and probably less, than that of alcohol or cigarettes. This November 6, Washington and Colorado voters will vote for legalization and regulation of small amounts of cannabis for all adults.

Also on that day, Rudy is running for mayor of Santee. If he wins, he'll become the first "out" medical cannabis patient in the United States holding elected office. As mayor, one thing he would have a strong say on, is instituting workable city practices for permitting medical cannabis dispensaries. Rudy is also very much for green energy, saying that rooftop solar water heaters, used in much of the Middle East, as well as in Japan and China, are a natural for Southern California. Sounding a bit like a young Obama, he sums up, "Change is always hard, but change is good. We need new blood in politics."