Missing Leaf: Placing Cannabis in the American Herbal Renaissance

Given the daily barrage of distressing headlines, you will be forgiven for not noticing that the United States is in the midst of an herbal renaissance. Concurrent with a rising distrust of mainstream medicine and the popularity of organic or “natural” foods, about 20 percent of the American public now report using herbal products. Over the past two decades, sales of herbal supplements have doubled, raising the value of the herbal products market above $8 billion. Also concurrent with this herbal reawakening is the widespread re-legalization of perhaps the country’s most controversial herb, cannabis.

An illustration of the Cannabis sativa plant from the Vienna Dioscurides, circa AD 512. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

But despite its long history as an herbal remedy in the United States, cannabis is rarely considered to be a part of this new herbal trend. For those familiar with cannabis culture, this might seem like a bizarre statement — after all, one of marijuana’s most popular nicknames is “the herb.” And yet a search for “cannabis” in the database of the Journal of Herbal Medicine turns up no specific articles on the plant. Similarly, the US National Library of Medicine’s “MedlinePlus” site lists only “cannabidiol” in its “Herbs and Supplements” database, despite the fact that the entire cannabis plant is and has been used medicinally for millennia. Cannabis is also conspicuously absent from back issues of the Journal of the American Herbalists Guild, even though one issue is devoted to inflammation, a condition that cannabis is known to help. A recent news article from Ohio documents a nationwide “resurgence” in “plants that once served as the original form of medication,” yet fails to identify the multi-billion-dollar cannabis market as part of this new “trend.”

So it seems that, aside from the occasional connection made by a cannabis CEO or cannabis-centric publications, herbal medicine and cannabis are considered to be somewhat mutually exclusive spheres. This perspective is not entirely unfounded; while most herbs have medical properties, cannabis sets itself apart from basil or ginseng by producing a substance that alters human consciousness. Yet not all cannabis plants produce the “high,” and the preoccupation with psychoactive effects has obscured the plant’s identity and functionality as an herb. A medical article from 2017, for instance, correctly observes that the “use of botanical cannabis for medicinal purposes represents the revival of a plant with historical significance reemerging in present day health care.” Even the burgeoning market in cannabidiol (CBD) — a cannabis compound that does not produce the marijuana “high” — is not generally discussed as part of the broader herbal movement.

Why Put “The Herb” Back Among Herbs?

Placing cannabis beyond herbal medicine has roots in prohibition, which has stigmatized and suppressed discussion of cannabis as anything other than a dangerous, mind-altering drug. Importantly, it was not always that way; as early as 1915 the US Department of Agriculture included cannabis along with other medicinal herbs in its widely distributed pamphlet “Drug Plants Under Cultivation.” In the 1909-1910 edition of Pacific Pharmacist, an entry on domestic cannabis shares a page with reports on “cascara sagrada” (buckthorn bark, a known laxative) and digitalis. So cannabis has formerly held a place in American herbal medicine. But what does it do for us today to place it back in this context?

A bottle of cannabis ethanol extract, circa late 1920s. The label indicates it has been tested by the American Druggist Syndicate under the Food and Drugs Act. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

For one thing, discussing and studying cannabis in concert with other herbs will help flesh out some of the commingling effects for people who use both — an important gap in the medical literature, given that more Americans are using cannabis along with other herbal products, such as ginseng and echinacea, at increasing rates. Medical providers have access to research that discusses the combined effects of herbs and pharmaceutical drugs; they need similar information for the growing number of patients who use cannabis alongside other herbal products. Properly composed, herbal regimens can have important health benefits, including blood vessel maintenance, improved digestion, and reduced inflammation. Are there certain combinations of cannabis and other herbs that can improve these regimens? Does cannabis interfere with the effects of other herbs?

Thinking about cannabis as an herb also invites consideration of the whole plant, a perspective endorsed by medical marijuana proponents but generally ignored by medical studies. On herbal consumption, one physician recently advised, “it’s best to eat the herb or spice instead of taking it in pill form.” This kind of holistic consumption should be applied to cannabis. Even though the plant’s medical legitimacy has been successfully re-established, much of the discussion centers on two molecules: the phytocannabinoids THC and CBD. But other parts of the plant have value as well: Cannabis roots, for example, contain neither THC nor CBD, but still hold promise in treating inflammation and pain relief. Terpenes are natural defensive oils that give cannabis plants their distinctive smell, but they also contribute to the plant’s medicinal profile. Even the raw leaves are edible and contain trace amounts of cannabinoids (but raw cannabis won’t get you high). And, while seedless marijuana may be the preferred drug product, hemp seeds are a tasty and nutritious snack. Indeed, like many other common herbs, cannabis holds value from root to tip.

For the cannabis industry, which continues to struggle against negative perceptions of the plant in the nation’s most powerful institutions, talking about the beneficial and adverse effects of cannabis alongside those of other herbs will also help dispel the lingering stigma surrounding it. The idea that cannabis is a multi-purpose plant that, like other herbs, has a range of side-effects and beneficial uses, should prove an effective foil to rising concerns about the over-commercialization of legal cannabis.

Finally, for the general public, which is used to seeing cannabis portrayed as either a helpful or harmful substance, placing cannabis in its proper herbal context will hopefully convince more Americans (importantly, more American voters) that cannabis is a plant before anything else, and regulating it as a crop is just as important as regulating it as a drug.

Getting Back to Plants

From pill bottles to produce sections, modern medicine and agriculture have effectively distanced our relationship to the plants that matter most to us. Americans’ en-masse return to herbal medicine is, in part, a reaction to that, not unlike the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. Cannabis, you might recall (or not, depending on your level of participation), played a major role in that movement as well. So while we are busy getting back to plants, let’s acknowledge the important history and versatility of one (cannabis) by restoring it — in our minds as well as our writing — to its rightful place among the herbs.

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