Hemp for Headache:
An In-Depth Historical and Scientific Review
of Cannabis in Migraine Treatment
ABSTRACT. Cannabis, or ‘‘marijuana,’’ has been employed in various
forms throughout the millennia for both symptomatic and prophylactic
treatment of migraine. This document examines its history of medicinal
use by smoking and other methods in ancient cultures, including the
Chinese, Indian, Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek and Roman, as well as in
the Islamic world, and its subsequent adoption by Renaissance and
Industrial Age Europeans.
The most prominent physicians of the age in the century between
1842 and 1942 preferred cannabis to other preparations in migraine
treatment, and it remained part of Western pharmacopoeias for this
indication throughout the period. The writings of this era are examined
in great detail in an effort to emphasize useful medical documentation
that has subsequently been forgotten.
In modern times, ethnobotanical and anecdotal references continue
to support the efficacy of cannabis for headache treatment, while
biochemical studies of THC and anandamide have provided scientific
justification for its use via anti-inflammatory, serotonergic and dopa-
minergic mechanisms, as well as by interaction with NMDA and en-
dogenous opioid systems. These are examined in detail.
The author feels that this collective evidence supports the proposi-
tion that experimental protocols of cannabis usage in migraine treat-
ment should go forward employing modern controlled clinical trials.
[Article copies available for a fee from The Haworth Document Delivery
Service: 1-800-342-9678. E-mail address: <email@example.com>
Website: <http://www.HaworthPress.com> E 2001 by The Haworth Press, Inc.
All rights reserved.]
Ethan Russo, MD, is Clinical Child and Adult Neurologist, Clinical Assistant
Professor of Medicine at the University of Washington and Adjunct Associate Pro-
fessor of Pharmacy, University of Montana, 900 North Orange Street, Missoula, MT
58902 (E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics, Vol. 1(2) 2001
E 2001 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved. 21
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
KEYWORDS. Migraine, headache, cannabis, marijuana, dronabinol,
ethnobotany, Indian hemp, pain, analgesia, history of medicine, psy-
chopharmacology, endocannabinoids, anandamide
Throughout medical history, drugs of choice for various indications
have changed by the decade, or in recent times, annually. Once having
fallen out of favor, few drugs ever resume a favorable opinion. Only a
handful has remained popular for decades.
Modern physicians are not cognizant of the prominence that canna-
bis preparations once held in the practice of medicine. Its departure
from Western formularies was due in part to problems with quality
control, but more particularly to political biases. As has been recently
stated (Notcutt, Price, and Chapman 1997, p. 551), ‘‘Unfortunately,
almost no clinical research into the use of cannabinoids for pain relief
has taken place, primarily because of the legal difficulties in conduct-
ing such trials in patients.’’
Despite its reputation as a ‘‘drug of abuse,’’ far more dangerous
medications than cannabis remain in our formularies because of their
specific medical indications. Thus, we retain opiates for analgesia,
amphetamines for treatment of narcolepsy and attention deficit hyper-
activity disorder, etc. Thalidomide, which was banned due to its tera-
togenic effects, may be revived as a mainstream cancer chemothera-
peutic with appropriate safeguards. Even the leech is once more a
therapeutic and research tool.
This review will examine the history of cannabis use for headache
treatment, along with its scientific basis and possible future as a
‘‘new’’ therapeutic agent. It represents a more in-depth attempt at
covering this topic as compared to prior publications (Russo 1998;
Russo 2001). A recent purported ‘‘comprehensive review’’ of medical
marijuana provided only one brief paragraph on migraine (Gurley,
Aranow, and Katz 1998), with no early historical data documenting
the extensive use of cannabis in migraine treatment.
The current narrative is divided into sections: The Ancient and
Classical Worlds, Middle Ages and Islamic World, Renaissance Eu-
rope, Industrial Age Western Medical Usage, Modern Ethnobotanical
Data, and Recent Research on Cannabis and Cannabinoids. Discus-
sion will focus on issues of headache and analgesia, while that on
Ethan Russo 23
political issues will be cited only as pertinent. Safety issues with
respect to cannabis have been discussed briefly in a prior publication
(Russo 1998). Reviews may be found in the following (Ashton 1999;
Hall, Solowij, and Lemon 1995; Zimmer and Morgan 1997). Exten-
sive bibliographies on cannabis have been published by the United
Nations (1965), Gamage and Zerkin (1969), Waller et al. (1976), and
Abel (1979). Excellent reviews of ‘‘medical marijuana’’ appear in the
literature by Mikuriya (1969; 1973), Grinspoon and Bakalar (1997),
Mathre (1997), Zimmer and Morgan (1997), British Medical Associa-
tion (1997), Zimmermann, Bayer, and Crumpacker (1998), Rosenthal,
Gieringer, and Mikuriya (1997), and the Institute of Medicine (Joy,
Watson, and Benson 1999).
THE HISTORY AND ETHNOBOTANY OF CANNABIS
IN HEADACHE TREATMENT
Archeological records substantiate a longstanding mutual associa-
tion of man and cannabis. It is a member of the plant family, Cannaba-
ceae, with botanical origin in Eastern or Central Asia (de Barge 1860;
Candolle 1886). Subsequent authors have often felt that no truly wild
hemp exists at this time, and that all modern strains derive from
cultivated forebears whose feral ancestor is now lost. Modern analysis
has placed the center of diversity for cannabis in Central Asia, possi-
bly in the Pamir plain (Camp 1936), border regions of Kazakhstan,
Mongolia, Northwest China and the Russian Far East (Bouquet 1950),
or in the Himalayan foothills (Sharma 1979).
The number of species in the Cannabis genus remains controver-
sial. Some botanists retain all members as one polymorphic species,
while others (Emboden 1981; Schultes and Hofmann 1980; Schultes
et al. 1974) have exhaustively documented three species: sativa, indi-
ca, and ruderalis. All specimens contain the psychoactive chemical
delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to some degree, generally indica
being most potent, and ruderalis least. Additional taxonomic data of
interest, particularly with reference to drug strains/species in Afghani-
stan (C. afghanica), ratios of cannabis components tetrahydrocanna-
binol (THC) to cannabidiol (CBD), and possible true wild plants, is
discussed a book by Clarke (1998).
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
Ancient and Classical Worlds
It is claimed that cannabis use occurred in central Europe by the
Bylony culture as much as 7000 years ago (Kabelik, Krejei, and Santa-
vy 1960). Physical evidence for its early employment in 1896 in
Wilmersdorff (Brandenburg), Germany in the form of a funerary urn
that contained cannabis leaves and fruit (Busse 1897), subsequently
dated to the 5th century BCE (Andrews and Vinkenoog 1967; La
Barre 1980). According to Ames (1939), Hartwich (1911) interpreted
the urn contents to represent early use as an inebriant.
Use of cannabis fibers to make hemp has been documented as early
as 4000 BCE in China by Carbon-14 dating (Li 1974), and has been
maintained continuously up to the present day. Its seed grain was an
ancient human foodstuff, which may have lead to an early recognition
of its medicinal use. The first records may occur in the Pên-tsao
Ching, a traditional herbal written down in the 1st or 2nd centuries, but
based on the oral traditions passed down from the Emperor Shên-nung
in the third millennium BCE. The text noted that the plant fruits ‘‘if
taken in excess will produce hallucinations (literally ‘‘seeing devils’’)
(Li 1974, p. 446). The chuan pictograph for cannabis, or Ma, is easily
recognized as harvested plants hanging inverted in a shed.
Julien (1849) submitted a controversial report of powdered canna-
bis use as an early surgical anesthetic in the early 2nd century.
Indications of cannabis for headache do not seemingly appear in
China until a later time (see Ethnobotany section).
The Atharva Veda of India, dated to between 1400 and 2000 BCE
referred to a sacred grass, bhanga, as an herb to allay anxiety (Indian
Hemp Drugs Commission 1894). The Sushruta Samhita cites medici-
nal references to cannabis dating to 600-400 BCE (Sushruta 1991).
Dwarakanath (1965) asserted that cannabis has been employed in folk
medicine from the 4th to 3rd centuries BCE. He noted Ayurvedic
preparations called Rasachandrika vati and Mahalakshmivilasa rasa,
said to contain cannabis indicated for (p. 17), ‘‘Diseases of the head
Ethan Russo 25
including neuralgic headaches, haemicrania etc. (Shiroaroga) [term
Other authors stated (Muthu 1927) (p. 27), ‘‘The Hindus also used
the fumes of burning Indian hemp (Cannabis indica) as an anaesthetic
at a period of great antiquity . . .’’ and (Sanyal 1964, p. 61), ‘‘They
also used the fumes of burning Indian Hemps (Cannabis Indica) as an
anaesthetic from ancient times . . .’’
One controversy frequently discussed in literature on the subject
concerns the issue of whether actual smoking as a method of drug
delivery occurred in the Old World before the European ‘‘re-discov-
ery.’’ In a discussion of Indian drugs including cannabis, Walker
(1968) addressed the issue, citing many early medical works [such as
the Sushruta Samhita (Sushruta 1991)] and a variety of herbs, includ-
ing those with indication for headache.
A modern observation may address the relative dearth of archeolog-
ical evidence on the smoking issue. Clarke (1998, p. CS5) has de-
scribed and illustrated a technique whereby cannabis is sieved to pro-
duce resin powder which is hand rolled into a ‘‘snake’’ that may be
smoked without additional paraphernalia, and potentially leaving
nothing but ash.
Although many authorities have claimed an absence of cannabis in
Ancient Egypt, Nunn (1996) cited six supporting experts that it was
employed (Mannische 1989; Ghalioungui 1987; Charpentier 1981;
von Deines and Grapow 1959; Faulkner 1962; Dawson 1934) as an
agent termed shemshemet, administered via oral, rectal, vaginal, and
local routes, and by fumigation.
Mannische (1989) also has cited evidence of cannabis use in An-
cient Egypt in the Pyramid Texts of the mid 3rd millennium BCE
Physical proof includes discoveries of hemp remnants in the tomb of
Akhenaten (Amenophis IV) around 1350 BCE, and cannabis pollen in
the tomb of Rameses II, who died in 1224 BCE.
The Zend-Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrianism, which survives
only in fragments dating from around 600 BCE in Persia, alludes to
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
the use of Banga in a medical context, which is identified as hemp by
Darmesteter (Zend-Avesta 1895).
Medical use of cannabis in Ancient Assyria has been claimed in
numerous sources, though has remained controversial. Thompson
(Thompson 1924, 1949) documented 29 citations of cannabis in the
ancient Assyrian library of Ashurbanipal. These attested to cannabis’
analgesic and psychogenic effects by various methods including fu-
migation. Citations date to the second millennium BCE and pertain to
A. ZAL. LA in Sumerian, and azallû in Akkadian. Through philologi-
cal arguments the author concluded (Thompson 1924, p. 101), ‘‘The
evidence thus indicates a plant prescribed in AM [Assyrian manu-
scripts] in very small doses, used in spinning and rope-making, and at
the same time a drug used to dispel depression of spirits. Obviously, it
is none other than hemp, Cannabis sativa, L.’’ Specifically (Thomp-
son 1949), hemp, or azallû, was employed to bind the temples (possi-
bly for headache?).
Longstanding debate has occurred as to the veracity of cannabis use
in the Bible. Benetowa (1936) proposed its presence on a strong philo-
logical basis in a Polish/French paper. Her data was re-presented a few
decades later (Benet 1975, p. 40):
Both in the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament and in the
Aramaic translation, the word kaneh or keneh is used either alone
or linked to the adjective bosm in Hebrew and busma in Aramaic,
meaning aromatic. It is cana in Sanskrit, qunnabu in Assyrian,
kenab in Persian, kannab in Arabic and kanbun in Chaldean. In
Exodus 30:23, God directs Moses to make a holy oil composed
of ‘‘myrrh, sweet cinnamon, kaneh bosm and kassia.’’ In many
ancient languages, including Hebrew, the root kan has a double
meaning–both hemp and reed.
To expand on this base, the same etymological roots apply to the word
cannabis in Scythian and Latin, kannabis in Greek, canevas in Old
Ethan Russo 27
French, quannab in Celtic, and canvas in English (cannabis hemp was
the original source for canvas material). Additionally, we see cáñamo
in Spanish, cãnhamo in Portuguese, chènevis in French, canapa in
Italian, khanapiz in old Germanic language, and konoplya in Russian.
Although the issue of its biblical presence has been hotly debated,
physical evidence of medicinal cannabis use in 4th century Israel/Pal-
estine was recently discovered (Zias et al. 1993).
Ancient Greece and Rome
The historian Herodotus, circa 450 BCE, described how a Central
Asian tribe called the Massagetae on Persia’s northeastern border
sought an altered state of consciousness as a group experience (Hero-
dotus 1998) (Book 1, Verse 202), with the smoke of the fruit of an
unidentified burning plant. Another passage (Book 4, verses 73-75) is
explicit in use of the word cannabis in description of a similar ritual
performed by the Scythian tribe somewhere north of the Black Sea.
In the 1st century of the Common Era, Dioscorides published his
Materia Medica, perhaps the first pharmacopoeia in the Western
World, describing the analgesic role of cannabis (Dioscorides 1968)
(3.165) (p. 390), ‘‘Cannabis is a plant of much use in this life for ye
twistings of very strong ropes, . . . but being juiced when it is green is
good for the pains of the ears.’’
In the 2nd century, the Greek physician Galen expounded on medi-
cal indications, mainly gastrointestinal (Brunner 1973), but also noted
of cannabis (Galen) (100.49, p. 350), ‘‘If consumed in large amounts,
it affects the head by sending to it a warm and toxic vapor.’’
Subsequently, Oribasius elaborated on this point (Oribasius 1997,
Book I, v. 32, p. 65), ‘‘The seed of hemp is difficult to digest and bad
for the stomach, causes headaches, and is unwholesome; it is some-
what heating.’’ These unsubstantiated side effect claims were to be
echoed by Middle Eastern and European authors for some 15 centu-
The Middle Ages and Islamic World
The medicinal use of cannabis as and herbal treatment or hashish
has been well documented in early Islamic texts (Lozano Camara
1997). Jabir ibn Hayyan observed a psychoactive effect in the Kitab
al-Sumum (‘‘Book of Poisons’’) in the 8th century (Lewis et al. 1971).
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
In the 9th century, Sabur ibn Sahl, a Nestorean Christian physician
in Persia cited use of cannabis five times in his dispensatorium, Al-Aq-
rabadhin Al-Saghir (Kahl 1994, p. 68), the earliest known document
of Arabic pharmacology. According to Dr. Indalecio Lozano (personal
communication, 2000), ibn Sahl offered four recipes for compound
medicines containing cannabis. The third of these comprised a large
number of ingredients, and was used to treat a variety of aching pains,
specifically migraine and headache. He prescribed that the compound
medicine of many items (or theriac) be mixed with juice of cannabis
(ma al-sahdanay) and then should be instilled into the patient’s nostril.
This represents the earliest unequivocal, direct citation of cannabis use
for migraine that the author has been able to document. The prescrip-
tion dictates administration by a parenteral route, intranasally, which
circumvents the oral pitfalls of oral migraine treatment due to the
nausea, emesis, and gastroparesis of that disorder.
Abu Mansur ibn Muwaffak in 10th century Persia in his work Kitab
al-abniya ‘an haqa’iq al-adwiya (‘‘Book of the Foundations of the
True Properties of Remedies’’), described the use of cannabis fiber for
making rope, and the plant to treat headache according to two sources
(Lewis et al. 1971; Levey, 1973), although a translation of the German
text seems to echo Galenic warnings that it produced headache (Kob-
Cannabis also figured in the medical writings of Avicenna (ibn
Sina) in the 10th century, wherein the inebriating effects of the plant
leaves were noted (Ainslie 1826), those of Simeonis Sethi, a Byzan-
tine scholar in the 11th century (Sethi 1868), and Maimonides in the
12th century (Meyerhof 1940; Maimonides 1979). Also in the 12th
century, Al-Biruni noted (Biruni 1973, p. 346), ‘‘Galen says: ‘The
leaves of this plant [Indian hemp = cannabis] cure flatus–Some people
squeeze the fresh (seeds) for use in ear-aches. I believe that it is used
in chronic pains.’’’
Throughout the Islamic Age, a definite ambivalence reigned con-
cerning cannabis pitting its medicinal effects against its inebriating
actions, which were arguably contrary to Muslim precepts. The first
known government sanction on cannabis occurred at the behest of
King al-Zahir Baybars at the close of the 13th century (Hamarneh
1957). Nevertheless, Umar ibn Yusuf ibn Rasul persisted in suggesting
cannabis for ear and head pain (Lewis et al. 1971).
Some centuries later, the use of an electuary named bars, or barsh,
Ethan Russo 29
containing a variety of herbs with or without cannabis, swept the Arab
world. Though maligned, and outlawed, it retained numerous medical
indications, including treatment of persistent headache (Lozano Ca-
The 17th century Persian medical text Makhzon-ul-Adwiya, or
Makhzan al-adwiya, described cannabis in its various preparations, as
an intoxicant, stimulant and sedative, but also (Dymock 1884, p. 605),
‘‘The leaves make a good snuff for deterging the brain . . .’’ This
source also recommended a poultice of its boiled roots (Kaplan 1969,
p. 175) ‘‘for allaying neuralgic pains.’’
Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th century abbess, musician, and herb-
alist wrote of cannabis in her Physica, stating (Fankhauser 2001, p. 34):
Whoever has an empty brain and head pains may eat it and the
head pains will be reduced. Though he who is healthy and full of
brains shall not be harmed by it.–He who has an empty brain
shall be caused pain by indulging in hemp. A healthy head and a
full brain will not be harmed.
European awareness of the psychoactivity of cannabis was re-
kindled with the writings of Garcia da Orta, who visited India in the
16th century, and noted its sedative and appetite-stimulating properties
in his 1563 book (da Orta 1913).
Contemporaneously, Rabelais wrote of cannabis in his Gargantua
et Pantagruel, including an excellent botanical description of the plant
and its medicinal uses (Robinson 1946; Rabelais 1990). Prosper Alpi-
nus (Alpin 1980) visited Egypt in 1591 and documented the use of
cannabis as an inebriant and visionary drug.
Medicinal uses persisted in England. In 1640, in the Theatrum
Botanicum, The Theater of Plantes (Parkinson 1640), John Parkinson
indicated (p. 598), ‘‘The decoction of the roote is sayd to allay in-
flammation in the head, or any other part, the herbe it selfe, or the
distilled water thereof performeth the like effect;’’
Culpeper echoed similar wording in his famous herbal (Culpeper
1994, p. 183), ‘‘The decoction of the root allays inflammations of the
head, or any other parts; the herb or the distilled water of it, does the
same.’’ Other European documentation of psychoactive and medicinal
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
usage of cannabis was provided by Ange de Saint-Joseph (Ange de
Saint-Joseph 1681), Berlu, in his 1690 book, Treasury of Drugs
(Flückinger 1879), Georg Everard Rumpf (Rumpf and Beekman
1981), Rheede (Rheede 1678-1692), Chardin (Chardin 1711), Engel-
bert Kaempfer in his Amoenitatum Exoticarum Politico-Physico-Med-
icarum (Dolan 1971; Kaempfer 1996), and Lemery (Lemery 1733).
In his book, Traité du Chanvre, Marcandier (1758) noted pertinent
inebriating and anti-inflammatory effects of cannabis (pp. 40-41), ‘‘Its
root, boiled in water, and smeared in the form of a cataplasm, softens
and alleviates joints of the fingers that are retracted, It is quite strong
against gout, and other swellings of nervous, muscular and tendinous
Linnaeus cited these uses of Cannabis sativa in his Materia Medica
(Linné 1772, pp. 213-214), ‘‘narcotica, phantastica, dementans, ano-
dyna, repellens.’’ This supports the concept that earlier scientists un-
derstood not only the psychotropic properties of cannabis, but also
recognized its analgesic value. Bergius noted a distinction between the
psychoactive effects of cannabis grown in the Orient as compared to
European samples (Bergius and Hesselberg 1782).
After the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt, cannabis usage was popu-
larized through the literary works of Silvestre de Sacy (Sacy 1809),
and subsequently, Moreau (1845), Gautier (1846), and Baudelaire (1860),
patrons of Le Club des Hachichins.
Industrial Age Western Medical Usage of Cannabis
The medical use of cannabis, or what became known as ‘‘Indian
hemp’’ was reintroduced to the West, yet again, in 1839 (O’Shaugh-
nessy 1838-1840). His treatise on the subject dealt with the apparent
symptomatic and analgesic utility of a plant extract administered to
patients suffering from rabies, cholera, tetanus, and convulsions.
The earliest specific citation on cannabis use in headache treatment
in modern Western medicine seems to be from London (Clendinning
1843), shortly after Indian hemp came to England. He began experi-
ments in 1842 (p. 191), on a ‘‘medical man of forty-four;’’ one may
assume, Dr. Clendinning himself. In an initial assay before bed, he
slept six hours versus his usual three to four, and suffered no indiges-
tion, nor other bodily derangements. In a second trial (p. 192):
Ethan Russo 31
Being frequently incommoded by rheumatic irritation in the
head, producing frightful dreams, troublesome nightmare, me-
grims [archaic word for migraine], headaches, &c., he took 20
minims of the tincture of hemp, with 3fs. spir. ammon. arom. at
bed time, and with effects similar in kind to those experienced on
the former occasion. He has since taken 3fs. of the tincture, with
ammonia, for a similar head affection, and with very satisfactory
Clendinning described his results of treatment with 18 patients,
three of whom suffered headaches. In each case, tincture of Indian
hemp provided relief, even in cases of morphine withdrawal (p. 209):
I have no hesitation in affirming that in my hand its exhibition
has usually, and with remarkably few substantial exceptions,
been followed by manifest effects as a soporific or hypnotic in
conciliating sleep; as an anodyne in lulling irritation; as an anti-
spasmodic in checking cough and cramp; and as a nervine stimu-
lant in removing languor and anxiety, and raising the pulse and
spirits; and that these effect have been observed in both acute and
chronic affections, in young and old, male and female.
In reply to the latter question, I should say that these useful,
and in several cases most salutary effects have been obtained
without any important drawback or deduction on account of
indirect or incidental inconveniences.
Back in India that same year, Shaw (1843, p.77) commented on a
patient who had been ‘‘in hospital frequently of late with cephalalgic
affections induced by intemperance.’’ A tincture of Cannabis indica
alleviated all his symptoms including an attack of cholera.
In Ireland, Donovan (1845) was effusive in his praise for the new
therapeutic tool, summarized results of his colleagues, then described
his own extensive trials, mainly in patients with neuropathic and mus-
culoskeletal pain (pp. 389-391):
The next case is that of a lady who laboured under a severe attack
of browach [read ‘‘browache’’], which for several days had come
on a nine o’clock in the morning, and went off about one. ‘‘The
pain (she described) was not sharp, but heavily intense, with a
slight throbbing.’’ She tried several remedies in vain; at length I
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
directed her to take three drachms of tincture of the herb [canna-
bis], about one hour before the accession of the pain. The follow-
ing is her own account of the effects, written at may request:-
‘‘Although feeling giddy, and indisposed to exertion, I got up an
hour after taking the medicine, and went down stairs a little
unsteadily. During breakfast I felt my head occasionally nodding,
in that sudden way which one experiences while dozing in a
chair . . . I had next to no pain over my eye, yet was constantly
putting up my hand to where the pain had been; my reason as
constantly telling me the pain was gone. . . . finally, after dozing
a few minutes, awoke quite well about four o’clock. I have not
had any return or tendency to return of the pain.’’
Dr. Graves by accident saw this lady in the singular state
above described. Notwithstanding her apprehensions, she in a
day or two after called on me to inquire if she should take more
of the medicine, with a view to securing herself against a return
of the browach; but of course none was given her.
The next case was that of William Dunn, a stout peasant, living
near Slane, subject to a violent pain in the head, which attacked
him at intervals of about a month.
This gentleman was also administered tincture of Indian hemp resin.
He experienced a variety of unusual bodily sensations, some arguably
due to the prescription, others likely secondary to the migraine (p. 391):
‘‘. . . He thought his eyes would burst out of his head; and that he
would be bruised, and blown up the chimney. Every thing ap-
peared very bright. Then he would bet a few moments’ ease
when it would commence its rig again.’’ This lasted about three
hours and a half, during which the pain was not felt, but then
returned a little. Finally, he fell asleep; slept eight hours, and was
perfectly well, except that he was ‘‘weak and dull.’’ The poor
man’s alarm was so great that he sent for his priest; but this did
not prevent his coming to Dublin for another dose against his
In neither case were the parties totally dissuaded from subsequent
pursuit of this new remedy on account of possible side effects. Dono-
van described two other cases pertaining to headache. In one, it was
Ethan Russo 33
one of a constellation of symptoms relieved by cannabis. In the other
The case of the Reverend R. H–11, is thus stated by himself: the
tincture of Indian hemp was prescribed for him by Dr. Aickin: ‘‘I
had so bad an attack of pain in the head (to which I have been
subject for some years), that I resolved to try your dose. The pain
was so acute at one side of the forehead, that it awoke me before
day-light, and continued unabated until about half an hour after I
took the Indian hemp, when the pain gradually died away. The
only effect produced beside this was a drowsiness which lasted
all the day, during the greater part of which I slept, with out at all
interfering with my night-sleep, which was, perhaps, rather im-
proved by it. I also remarked, that instead of having some re-
mains of the pain and weight in the head, as at other times, after a
severe attack the pain was gone completely, and left no uneasi-
ness after it.’’
Donovan summarized with the following comments (p. 399):
In the foregoing details, I have not made a selection of the suc-
cessful cases out of many, but have faithfully recorded all those
that come under my observation, of which the termination was
distinctly known. It may be seen that far more than the majority
of them were cured evidently by the agency of the hemp, and that
all the rest were more or less relieved.
That same year, two cases of chorea with headache were described
(Taylor 1845). One case was associated with mitral valvular disease,
(likely Sydenham’s post-streptococcal chorea), while the other might
have been due to that disease, trauma or functional causes. All head-
ache symptoms were alleviated by tid dosing with tincture of Canna-
Christison (1851) reviewed the topic of Indian hemp at length. In
addition to endorsing its benefits in treating tetanus, and augmenting
labor, he reported marked benefit in treatment of neuralgic pain, which
many authors of the time conceived of as including migraine.
In 1855, G. Martius published a German essay with an extensive
bibliography of medicinal properties of cannabis (Martius 1855).
In 1860, an American doctor stated (Owen 1860, p. 281), ‘‘Canna-
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
bis Indica, when properly administered in small doses, serves to
strengthen the constitution, affords an increase of mental activity, and
increase of appetite, enables one to endure fatigue, alleviates pain . . .’’
Over the next decades, authorities recognized cannabis as helpful
for various conditions, including headache. John Russell Reynolds
was eventually to become Queen Victoria’s personal physician. He
reported his successes with Indian hemp (Reynolds 1868). Several of
his patients suffered headaches, whether due to migraine, syphilis, or
spasm, but all obtained benefit in his hands. One misused the prescrip-
tion Squire’s extract (p. 154):
A young lady, whose violent head-aches had been much relieved
by doses of gr. 1/3, repeated a dose too soon, felt almost immedi-
ate freedom from pain, and started with some friends to a white-
bait dinner at Blackwall. Unaccustomed to the steam-boat, to
whitebait, and to wine, she shortly began to be extremely lively
in conversation, then to ‘‘clip her words,’’ and suffer from confu-
sion of vision; but whether in this case the result was due to
previous head-ache, to the steam-boat, to whitebait, hock, or
Indian hemp, I could never satisfactorily determine.
In another case, there were no such misadventures (p. 19):
A young lady, age 19, of highly nervous temperament, but
with no evidences of hysteria, has suffered from attacks of hemi-
crania, of great severity, for a period of 18 months. Change of air,
various tonics, and alteratives have been tried without avail. The
attacks are of almost daily frequency, the general health has
become enfeebled, she dreads every kind of exertion and amuse-
ment for fear that it should induce the pain. Cannabis Indica was
given in gr. 1/3 doses, thrice daily, and after the second day the
attacks may be said to have completely ceased; for there have not
occurred more than two since that time, and these in each
instance arose from the sudden discontinuance of the medicine. It
is now more than 14 months, and no medicine has been taken for
the last eight.
Reynolds theorized (p. 160):
This medicine appears capable of reducing over-activity of the
nervous centres without interfering with any one of the functions
Ethan Russo 35
of organic, or vegetal life. The bane of many opiates and seda-
tives is this, that the relief of the moment, the hour, or the day, is
purchased at the expense of to-morrow’s misery. In no one case
to which I have administered Indian hemp, have I witnessed any
Another contemporary citation is that of Anstie (1871, p. 190):
From 1/4 grain to 1/2 grain of good extract of cannabis, repeated
in two hours if it has not produced sleep, is an excellent remedy
in migraine of the young. It is very important in this disease, that
the habit of long neuralgic paroxysms should not be set up;
Richard Greene was widely recognized for advocating the prophy-
lactic treatment of migraine with daily doses of Cannabis indica. His
experience over two years caused him to label it (Greene 1872, p. 267)
‘‘nearly always productive of more or less benefit to the patient.’’ He
presented six case studies with impressive responses. The two least
responsive patients seemed to be non-compliant with the daily regi-
men. One, however, successfully treated acute migraine attacks with a
double dose of cannabis. The other incomplete response (p. 268)
occurred in an, ‘‘inveterate tea and coffee drinker [who] could by no
means be persuaded to give up the use of these wretched stimulants.’’
Thus, from an early date, Greene was able to note the effect known to
contemporary neurological practice as ‘‘analgesic rebound,’’ that is
the tendency of certain agents, when used habitually to perpetuate
rather than abrogate chronic headaches.
Overall, Greene stated of his case studies (pp. 269-270):
These will show that though Cannabis Indica may often fail to
cure, it scarcely ever fails to effect some improvement even in
the most apparently hopeless cases; . . . this drug may be taken
for very many months in comparatively large doses without pro-
ducing any unpleasant effects or in any way injuriously affecting
the economy. . . . As a rule, it will be sufficient to prescribe
one-third of a grain [of the alcohol extract] every night or every
night and morning, and it may be increased to two-thirds of a
grain. . . . In the above cases, however, no drug whatever was
used excepting the Cannabis Indica.
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
In the same journal, Anstie (1872) also recommended Indian hemp
for acute migraine relief in a lecture on its treatment.
Liveing (1873) was the author of a popular book on migraine, but
failed to mention cannabis as a treatment modality. Despite positive
review the next year (Allbutt 1874), the following criticism was of-
fered (p. 319), ‘‘If we discover anything lacking in this book it is in
this chapter [on migraine treatment], where Dr. Living, instead of
being always better informed than ourselves, seems scarcely more
than abreast of the general knowledge on the subject.’’ Allbutt then
proceeded to fill in the gaps on treatments that deserved greater inves-
tigation and endorsement, ‘‘Nitrite of amyl is one of these, and one
from which I have been led to hope something; others are ergot of rye,
cannabis indica, and digitalis.’’
The noted American neurologist, Silas Weir Mitchell espoused can-
nabis for migraine (Mitchell 1874, p. 70):
It is necessary at times to do something to give immediate relief
to the too prolonged pain, and in these cases a combination of
cannabis indica and morphia answers very well; but in a disease
so wearisome and long, it is well to be more than cautious in
Also in 1874, a popular textbook, Practical Therapeutics stated of
cannabis (Waring 1874, p. 159):
Of a good extract, gr. 1/4 to gr. 1/2, rarely gr. j, in the form of pill,
is very effective in some forms of neuralgia, particularly Clavus
hystericus [a lancinating type of pain along the sagittal aspect of
the head] and Migraina. Even in the severest and most intractable
forms it often palliates greatly. It should be given every night,
whether there be pain or not.
These continued claims support both acute and prophylactic indica-
tions of cannabis for migraine.
Edouard C. Seguin, the President of the New York Neurological
Society, gave a speech espousing the preventive benefits of cannabis
for migraine that was frequently cited for the next 40 years (Seguin
1878, 1877). To quote (p. 1):
Briefly stated my thesis is THAT BY THE LONG-CONTINUED
USE OF CANNABIS INDICA, MIGRAINE OR SICK-HEAD-
Ethan Russo 37
ACHE MAY BE CURED, MUCH RELIEVED, OR MIGI-
GATED IN SEVERITY.
Seguin indicated that he had applied techniques suggested by Greene
in the intervening several years, and with good success. He felt this
approach unique in (p. 4), ‘‘treating the disease, of the supposed fun-
damental pathological state in the nervous system.’’ In comparing
cannabis to alternative treatments, he stated (p. 5), ‘‘I never allow my
patients to take opium or morphia themselves in this disease.’’ His
approach to migraine was as follows (p. 6):
The principle of the treatment is to keep the nervous system
steadily under a slight influence of cannabis for a long period of
time; . . .
I give adult females one-third of a grain of the alcoholic ex-
tract of cannabis indica before each meal, increasing the dose
after a few weeks to one-half grain. Males can generally begin
with one-half grain, and it is well to give them three-quarters
grain in two or three weeks. These doses must be taken with the
greatest regularity, just as faithfully and regularly as bromides in
epilepsy. Indeed, when beginning such a treatment, I usually
obtain a promise from the patient that he will regularly take the
pills for a period of three months.
As a rule, no appreciable immediate effect is produced by the
above doses, though I have known lightness of the head and
slight confusion of mind to result from an initial dose of one-half
grain three times a day.
Under this apparently and essentially simple plan of treatment,
I have known what may be termed excellent results to be ob-
tained. . . . I feel certain that about one-half of my cases have
been relieved. . . . The majority of patients relieved have obtained
months of freedom from attacks while taking the remedy.
Seguin’s rare document was reviewed the next year in the British
Medical Journal. The article contained direct quotations and com-
ments (Anonymous 1879):
When we consider the vast aggregate of suffering which this
malady occasions, and, we fear we must add, the unsatisfactory
methods of treatment hitherto proposed, at least in many of the
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
severer forms of the affection, where relief is most urgently
called for, we think Dr. Seguin’s concluding appeal to his profes-
sional brethren ‘‘to give the cannabis treatment of true migraine a
critical trial,’’ is abundantly justified.
Day (1880, p. 312) expounded on headaches in a book of the era.
Diagnostic categories for its presentations were quite distinct from
those recognized today: Day barely mentioned migraine. Neverthe-
less, ‘‘tincture of cannabis indica’’ was prescribed in association with
‘‘the headache of cerebral hyperaemia’’ and ‘‘neuralgic headache.’’
In the French literature, Michel (1880) extensively reviewed and
endorsed the success of cannabis in treating neuralgic afflictions.
Lothrop (1880) reported on the benefits of cannabis in persistent
hemicrania. After paying homage to Greene and Seguin, he indicated
the principle of treatment (p. 200):
What the bromides and belladonna are to Epilepsy, cannabis
indica is to migraine; not that either of these medicinal agents or
any combination of them will cure every case that may come
under observation, but they will relieve many. . . . Success here is
only obtained by persevering effort. Failure is often complained
of, when on inquiry the agent has not had a fair trial;
He offered a case study (p. 201):
A case is in hand in which hereditary influences bore a prominent
part in its causation; in which the skill of the most eminent men
in the metropolis had failed to afford any relief, the patient finally
resigning herself to the suffering which seemed inevitably to be
entailed upon her at each menstrual epoch, the only hope of relief
being in the approach of the climacteric which was many years in
the future. Hemicrania in its severest form, with nausea, insom-
nia always followed each menstruation. Life was indeed bur-
dened with the anticipation fulfilled with never-varying certainty
of two or three days in each month of suffering from which there
seemed no escape, and hence no relief. The prolonged use of
cannabis indica of the period of one year, has afforded such relief
that the nervous system has had time to regain long-lost vigor,
and the patient is in better health than for many years. Other
cases might be cited confirmatory of the utility of the agent. Is
Ethan Russo 39
the question asked, Has the remedy ever failed in my hands? And
I can answer that it has not in any case in which its prolonged use
has been made. The trouble is in the want of perseverance to the
patient, not in the efficacy of the remedy.
A self-styled ‘‘Country Doctor’’ stated of Cannabis indica treat-
ment (Anonymous 1883, p. 992), ‘‘Last winter I had four patients,
who found a one grain dose of the extract quite specific in warding off
attacks of migrainous headache. For months this had been the case.’’
Another observed (Lawrence 1883, p. 177), ‘‘undoubted value which
attaches to cannabis Indica in megrim, . . .’’
Spender (1884) felt that newer was not always better (p. 1145):
But I wish to lay special stress on the prophylactic treatment of
migraine. Before the days of chloral and the bromine salts, Indian
hemp was much more in fashion than it is now; and I often
recommended a dose of Indian hemp and of quinine to be taken
every night during the intervals of the neuralgic attacks. It is
doubtful whether any combination of more modern drugs prom-
ises better successes; and we must remember that our aim is
gradual alleviation rather than sudden cure.
In a review of headache (Sinkler 1886), in relation to migraine
treatment, the author stated (pp. 413-414):
Cannabis indica is probably the most potent remedy which is at
our command. Its effects are most decided, and many cases of
hemicrania have been cured by this means alone. It must be given
for a long time, and in some instances it is necessary to give
gradually-increasing doses up to the physiological effects. The
drug must be of good quality, otherwise we need expect no good
from it. . . . Occasionally, an impending attack can be warded off
by the administration of caffeine, guarana [caffeine-containing
seed extract of the Amazonian tree, Paullinia cupana], or canna-
bis indica. Cannabis indica may be given in doses of a quarter of
a grain of the extract every two hours until relief is obtained.
Sydney Ringer, the inventor of the physiological intravenous fluid
that bears his name, devoted a book chapter to the plant (Ringer 1886,
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
Cannabis indica is one of the most valuable remedies for megrim
or sick headache. It appears to act on the nervous centre whence
this headache springs. It is found serviceable both in cases asso-
ciated with little or no nausea, and in cases accompanied by
severe vomiting. It is useful in attack accompanied with spectra
[visual disturbance in migraine]. It is most useful, in my experi-
ence, in preventing the attack, not in arresting them when once
they have begun. It is sometimes useful in those severe continu-
ous forms of headache lasting for weeks; but it is especially
effective when from fatigue, anxiety, or change of life the attacks
become much more frequent; then the drug gradually, and indeed
sometimes quickly, lengthens the interval, and at last brings back
the attacks to their old periodicity, or even extends the intervals
between the seizures. It need hardly be said that cannabis will not
cure these patients. I have given this drug weeks or months
continuously, in dosed of one-third to one-half grain twice or
thrice daily. . .
Subsequent experience has fully confirmed the favourable
opinion of it just expressed; no single drug have I found so useful
in migraine. . . . Not only is cannabis indica useful in the inter-
paroxysmal period to prevent headaches, but a third to half a
grain of the extract given at the commencement of an attack will
sometimes cut short the paroxysm.
Hobart Hare published an article that dealt with the indication of
cannabis for migraine treatment in detail (Hare 1887, pp. 225-226):
CANNABIS INDICA has been before the profession for many
years as a remedy to be used in combating almost all forms of
pain, yet, owing to the variations found to exist as to its activity,
it has not received the confidence which I think it now deserves.
At present certain improvements made in the method of obtain-
ing the extract from the crude drug have very materially in-
creased its reliability, so that by selecting an article made by a
responsible firm we may be fairly sure of receiving a preparation
in which we can place confidence. Within a few years this drug
has become particularly prominent in connection with its use in
migraine, particularly when used in conjunction with gelsemium
[Gelsemium sempervirens (L.) Ait. Loganiaceae, yellow jessa-
mine. This is now recognized as toxic, but is retained in some
Ethan Russo 41
modern homeopathic remedies.], although of the two remedies
the hemp is by far the most active agent in subduing the pain and
preventing other attacks.
. . . I have certainly seen very severe and intractable cases of
migraine successfully treated by this remedy, not only in regard
to the attack itself, but by acting as a prophylactic. The best use
of the remedy under such circumstances is as follows, in case the
drug obtained be fairly active. If the attacks are frequent then the
remedy should be used constantly in small doses, in such a way
that the patient is not conscious of any influence of the drug, and
about 1/8 of a grain of the solid extract may be taken night and
morning, or, if this produces any tendency to sleep, the whole
amount may be taken at night. At the beginning and during the
attack it should be freely administered, until either the pain is
diminished or very marked symptoms of its physiological action
assert themselves; and that this line of treatment is not one calcu-
lated to produce serious results is proved by my own experi-
ments, and by the fact that so far no case of fatal poisoning from
its ingestion has been recorded as occurring in the human being.
. . . Cases of migraine treated in this way, when the disease
does not depend on any distinct organic lesion, are in a large
proportion of instance either entirely cured or greatly benefited,
the attacks even when they recur being considerably farther
. . . The advantages in its use over that of opium consist chiefly
in the absence of prostration and nausea after its ingestion, and in
the partial lack of soporific power which it possesses as
compared to the opiate, for in certain cases sleep is not always
desirable when pain is to be removed. That cannabis indica has,
however, marked powers as a soporific is not to be denied. Add-
ed to these advantages is the fact of its failure to produce serious
symptoms even if very large doses be taken, although I have
found the efficient dose of a pure extract of hemp to be as power-
ful in relieving pain as the corresponding dose of the same prepa-
ration of opium.
. . . During the time that this remarkable drug is relieving pain
a very curious psychical condition sometimes manifests itself;
namely, that the diminution of the pain seems to be due to its
fading away in the distance, so that the pain becomes less and
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
less, just as the pain in a delicate ear would grow less and less as
a beaten drum was carried farther and farther out of the range of
Stephen Mackenzie stated (Mackenzie 1887, p. 97):
Indian hemp is well known as a sedative, and enjoys a consider-
able reputation–not so large, however, as is deserves–in the treat-
ment of headache. . .
The headache to which I wish to draw attention is of a dull,
continuous, or subcontinuous character, attended sometimes with
Mackenzie went on to describe this syndrome at length. It is this
author’s opinion that he was describing ‘‘chronic daily headache,’’ an
evolutive subset of migraine. Mackenzie felt of Indian hemp, ‘‘In the
majority of cases, it cures the complaint.’’ Once more, he employed an
alcohol extract, in doses similar to those above cited (p. 97):
Given in these doses, usually no inconvenience is experienced by
those taking cannabis indica; but a few patients have complained
of a feeling of slight confusion or giddiness, not in any way so
annoying as the condition for which it was administered.
The length of time over which treatment has to be continued
varies in different cases; usually, it extends over several weeks,
but rebellious cases may require a treatment of two or three
months. As the malady recedes, the dose should be reduced, and
it is advisable to continue the administration of the remedy for a
week or two after the headache has disappeared.
Four case studies were described at length, one that of a medical
student who pursued the Socratic method (p. 98), ‘‘He has since him-
self administered the drug to others suffering in like manner.’’
The following year, Greene (1888) opined that Indian hemp had not
received its due recognition in migraine treatment, particularly in En-
gland. He revisited the topic with the benefit of 16 years of additional
usage, ‘‘Since 1872 I have often prescribed it, and I have yet to meet
with a case in which at least some improvement does not follow the
careful and continuous use of the drug.’’ He cited 3 representative
cases (p. 36):
Ethan Russo 43
Case I.–A female, aged fifty-three. Has been a martyr to this
disease for twenty-five years; the attacks recurring very frequent-
ly. It was rare that eight days passed without one. In this case
improvement began almost immediately; and the attack are not
only less severe, but are reduced to once a month.
Case II.–Female, aged thirty-five. Had suffered from migraine
for twelve years. She did not remember during that time ever
being three weeks without an attack, and was ill of three days.
Her, too, improvement began very soon after the treatment, and
in eight weeks she considered herself cured.
Case III.–Female, aged thirty-seven. This patient has had sick
headache for many years. The attacks came on weekly, and lasted
two days. After a few weeks’ treatment she was much better, and
has now been months without an attack.
Greene commented (p. 36):
It should be noted that the treatment here advocated afresh is not
merely a palliative one during the paroxysm, like the use of
guarana, caffeine, hypodermic morphine or nitrite of amyl in-
halations, but is often curative and nearly always gives some
He chose to differ with Seguin (p. 37), ‘‘In reviewing both, I am
confident that in my hands recovery has more frequently followed
cannabis indica in migraine than bromides in epilepsy.’’ Greene reiter-
ated his observation of the safety of cannabis and his dosing regimen
suggestions over the long term (p. 37):
when decided relief is felt there is not much fear but that perse-
verance in the treatment will follow the improvement, as mi-
graine is the reverse of a pleasant companion, and often unfits its
victim for an active life several days in every month.
A doctor in India wrote of Cannabis indica (McConnell 1888), and
how proper storage was key to therapeutic response (p. 95):
Where care is taken in this respect, the therapeutic value of the
drug in certain affections of the nervous system–tetanus, neural-
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
gia, migraine &c.–and its powerful effect in controlling uterine
haemorrhage (menorrhagia, &c.) has been repeatedly recorded
by competent observers, and its employment for the relief of
such affections is well understood and more or less extensively
William Gowers was one of the founding fathers of modern neurol-
ogy. For treatment of migraine, he wrote (Gowers 1888, p. 1188),
‘‘Most relief is afforded to the pain by a good dose (thirty or forty
grains) of bromide, and its effect is increased by the addition of five or
ten minims of tincture of Indian hemp.’’ For treatment of ‘‘headache,’’
Sedatives are very uncertain in their influence. Opium and mor-
phia are seldom useful, and often do more harm than good, in
consequence of the indirect effect of the constipation that is
produced. Gelsemium and Indian hemp frequently lessen the
pain, the former chiefly in neuralgic forms about the front of the
head, the latter not only in neuralgic, but in anaemic, and also
other ill-defined forms of headache.
Little (1888) recommended for ‘‘migrainous headache’’ fresh air,
exercise, healthy diet, bathing (p. 56):
And among drugs the combination which has appeared to me to
do most good is a pill containing one-twelfth of a grain of arseni-
ate of sodium, one-sixth of a grain of extract of indian hemp,
one-third of a grain of extract of bella-donna, and two grains of
valerianate of zinc, taken after breakfast and dinner.
Farlow (1889) discussed use of rectal preparations of cannabis (Far-
low 1889). Although many of the author’s concepts concerning the
pathophysiology of gynecological problems seem quite dated a centu-
ry later, he stated (p. 508), ‘‘Cannabis has few equals in its power over
nervous headaches such as women with pelvic troubles are subject
In India, Watt attributed the following quotation on cannabis to a
Dr. E. G. Russell in Calcutta (Watt 1889, p. 124), ‘‘Valuable as a
remedy for sick headache, and especially in preventing such attacks.’’
In the USA, Wharton Sinkler (Sinkler 1890) once again reviewed
Ethan Russo 45
migraine for a medical newspaper. He observed an unusual feature of
the disorder, its tendency to afflict some sufferers weekly on the same
day (p. 57), ‘‘Cannabis indica was given in increasing doses and the
patient was greatly relieved. The periodicity of the attacks was broken
up and the intervals became from eight to ten weeks.’’ In another case,
he documented (p. 57):
I gave him cannabis indica and regulated his diet and the attacks
were very much relieved in frequency and severity. The Sunday
attacks recurred for about nine months. . . . He now very rarely
has attacks and they are not so severe as formerly.
Sinkler summarized (p. 59):
Cannabis indica, which has been given in migraine for many
years, still holds a prominent place among the medicinal agents
used in its treatment. For myself, I may say that I consider it of
more value in the majority of cases of migrainous headache than
in any other headache. It must be given for some length of time
and the dose should be increased until slight toxic symptoms are
A few weeks later, in the same journal, Aulde (1890) affirmed the
prophylactic benefit of extract of Indian hemp in frequent migraine,
but reminded readers of its utility and efficacy in acute settings (p. 118),
‘‘For the emergency, to relieve the pain and place the patient in a
favorable condition, I cannot speak too highly of an assayed prepara-
tion of cannabis indica . . .’’ His patient had suffered inexorably from a
three week attack.
Tirard (1890) commented on ‘‘toxic effects’’ of cannabis (p. 723).
His case pertained to a 48 year-old man prescribed the tincture for
‘‘migraine and lassitude.’’ The same day, Dr. Tirard was summoned to
see the patient for anxiety symptoms, after ingesting some 2 1/2 times
the prescribed dose. Nevertheless, the patient was easily reassured,
and it was reported, ‘‘He has since taken the ordinary dose on several
occasions, not only without any toxic effects, but with marked relief of
migraine and of the ordinary symptoms of business worry.’’
Benefits of cannabis were also reported in France (Lailler 1890),
including its use in migraine.
The Lancet published an article on Cannabis indica by J. Russell
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
Reynolds 22 years after his initial report (Reynolds 1890), ‘‘Indian
hemp, when pure and administered carefully, is one of the most valu-
able medicines we possess.’’ In relation to its use in headache, Rey-
nolds said, ‘‘Migraine: Very many victims of this malady have for
years kept their suffering in abeyance by taking hemp at the moment
of threatening, or onset of the attack.’’
In Germany in 1890, a commercial product was marketed called
Migränin containing 1% cannabis extract and unspecified active or-
ganic substances (Fankhauser 1996, p. 163).
In the following year, the British Medical Journal published a short
report, ‘‘On the Therapeutic Value of Indian Hemp’’ (Suckling 1891),
which stated (p. 12):
In migraine the drug is also of great value; a pill containing 1/4
gr. of the extract with or without a 1/4 gr. of phosphide of zinc
will often immediately check an attack, and if the pill will be
given twice a day continuously the severity and frequency of the
attacks are often much diminished. I have met with patients who
have been incapacitated for work from the frequency of the at-
tacks, and who have been enabled by the use of Indian hemp to
resume their employment.
In A Text-Book of Materia Medica and Therapeutics (Cowperth-
waite 1892), once more Cannabis indica was indicated for migraine
The same year, it was written of cannabis (Mattison 1891) (p. 266),
‘‘. . . its most important use is in that opprobrium of the healing art-
migraine.’’ Mattison paraphrased the work of many authors on the
subject as above presented, but then drew from his own experience
Failure with hemp is largely due to inferior preparations, and this
has had much to do with its limited use. It should never be called
inert till full trial with an active product proved it. . . . In head-
ache, periodical or long continued, one half to two grains solid
extract may be given each hour or two till the attack is arrested,
and then continued in a similar dose, morning and night, for
weeks or months. It is important not to quit the drug during a
respite from pain.
I close this paper by asking attention to the need of giving
Ethan Russo 47
hemp in migraine. Were its use limited to this alone, its worth,
direct and indirect, would be greater than most imagine. Bare in
mind the bane of American women is headache. Recollect that
hemp eases pain without disturbing stomach and secretions so
often as opium, and that competent men think it not only calm-
ative, but curative. Above all remember the close genetic relation
of migraine relieved by opium, to a disease that spares neither
sex, state nor condition.
. . . Indian hemp is not here lauded as a specific. It will, at
times, fail. So do other drugs. But the many cases in which it acts
well, entitle it to a large and lasting confidence.
My experience warrants this statement: cannabis indica is,
often, a safe and successful anodyne and hypnotic.
Mackenzie (1894) reviewed an additional seven years of cannabis
in headache treatment in a French journal (pp. 399-400):
It exerts a favorable action in all forms of headache, whether of a
purely functional nature or due to an organic affection. Thus, I
have often succeeded in completely calming by Indian hemp the
violent headaches occasioned by brain tumors. In these cases,
sometimes Cannabis indica acts altogether better than morphine
administered by subcutaneous injection, sometimes it is inferior
to it as an analgesic. It may interrupt at its debut, or when it has
persisted a certain time; its prolonged usage is capable of dimin-
ishing the frequency and intensity of the migraine attacks.
. . . I have convinced myself that Cannabis indica calms well
the cephalic pains of chronic uremia.
. . . In some twenty years that I have employed Indian hemp, I
have registered very few failures in the treatment of the particular
form of cephalalgia that I have come to describe [chronic daily
headache]: I may likewise say that the success of this treatment
has been striking precisely in the most inveterate and seemingly
particularly rebellious cases.
. . . The feeble symptoms of intoxication sometimes provoked
by Indian hemp need not cause us to renounce the use of this
precious medicament. In effect, a long experience has demon-
strated to me, I repeat, that these accidents are absolutely excep-
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
tional. They result either from an idiosyncrasy, or variability in
the grade of the drug in its active principle. [translation EBR]
Cannabis in its various forms remained the focus of intense debate.
Because of concerns of its dangers, the British and colonial authorities
in India organized the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission (1894) to
examine all aspects of the issue. Its members, after exhaustive inves-
tigation and testimony exceeding 3000 pages, found no reason medi-
cally or economically to outlaw the plant or its use. Two pertinent
excerpts follow (Kaplan 1969, p. 176, p. 483):
Witnesses refer to the use of the drugs [bhang, ganja, charas] in
the treatment of ‘‘brain fever,’’ cramps convulsions of children,
headache, hysteria, neuralgia, sciatica, and tetanus.
. . . Tinctura Cannabis Indicae
. . . Sedative, anodyne, and hypnotic, has been used with success
in megrim and delirium, also in menorrhagia and dysmenor-
Brookes (1896) continued to tout cannabis in migraine. His patient
was a young woman who suffered severe attacks every one two
weeks. He place her on a prophylactic daily regimen as previously
recorded (p. 338):
This treatment has been carried out with the strictest regularity
nearly two months, during which period the patient has been
absolutely free from a recurrence of pain. . .
I may add I observed no dizziness, or any constitutional de-
rangement, either at the beginning of treatment or during its
That year, a brief case report documented a self-limited case of
cannabis overdose in a 12 year-old (Attlee 1896), easily treated, and in
which his prolonged headache was alleviated.
Fox (1897) also touted cannabis for headache (p. 307):
I understand by migraine a periodical nerve storm. . . . For the
relief of the paroxysms antipyrin and phenacetin have often been
in my experience successful. . . . But I am accustomed to rely
Ethan Russo 49
much upon cannabis indica, having had a pretty large experience
of this remedy. The extract, often combined with cascara sagrada
[Rhamnus purshianus DC Rhamnaceae, a laxative], has controlled
many, if not most, cases of migraine. . . . I prefer to use the fresh
extract, and have in a good many instances given it to the point of
intoxication. This, however, does no permanent harm.
An American 1898 drug handbook stated the following quaint
prose under ‘‘Actions and uses’’ for cannabis (Lilly 1898, p. 32):
Not poisonous according to best authorities, though formerly so
regarded. Antispasmodic, analgesic, anesthetic, narcotic, aphro-
disiac. Specially recommended in spasmodic and painful affec-
tions; for preventing rather than arresting migraine; almost a
specific in that form of insanity peculiar to women, caused by
mental worry or moral shock.
That year, a case report documented symptoms of cannabis over-
dose in a young woman whose headache was relieved, but who had
nonetheless administered a second dose after 4 hours (Roche 1898).
At the turn of the last century, Shoemaker (1899) reported two
supportive case studies from Philadelphia. One pertained to a 26 year-
old male whose attacks of hemicrania were incapacitating, lasting 48
hours (p. 485):
Cannabis indica brought him more relief than he had obtained
from any other substance. Convinced by experience, he had re-
course to this remedy as soon as he felt the slightest promonition
of and attack. He would sometimes succeed in aborting a parox-
ysm and upon other occasions the severity of an attack would be
In the other case, the concomitant occurrence of migraine and dysmen-
orrhea was successfully treated with cannabis (p. 484), ‘‘In migraine,
hemicrania, or sick headache the use of this remedy is often produc-
tive of excellent results.’’
In The New American Family Physician by (Lyman, Jones and
Belfield 1899), the authors recommended for headache (p. 340):
Where there is no evident disturbance of digestion to account for
the difficulty, and where the individual is ‘‘nervous,’’ the follow-
ing prescription may be given:
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
Extract of guarana, 40 grains
Extract of cannabis indica, 30 grains
Citrate of caffeine, 60 grains
Mix, and make 40 pills; take one pill, and repeat the dose after
two hours if not relieved.
Contemporaneously, a British pharmacologist extensively studied
cannabis (Dixon 1899), recognizing its value as an appetite stimulant,
supporting its current indications in the cachexia of cancer chemother-
apy and HIV-positive patients. Dixon also lauded smoked cannabis
In cases where an immediate effect is desired the drug should be
smoked, the fumes being drawn through water. In fits of depres-
sion, mental fatigue, nervous headache, and exhaustion a few
inhalations produce an almost immediate effect, the sense of
depression, headache, feeling of fatigue disappear and the subject
is enabled to continue his work, feeling refreshed and soothed. I
am further convinced that its results are marvellous in giving
staying power and altering the feelings of muscular fatigue which
follow hard physical labour. . .
Hemp taken as an inhalation may be place in the same catego-
ry as coffee, tea, and kola [Cola acuminata or C. nitida Sterculia-
ceae, tropical African trees whose nuts contain caffeine]. It is not
dangerous and its effects are never alarming, and I have come to
regard it in this form as a useful and refreshing stimulant and
food accessory, and one whose use does not lead to a habit which
grows upon its votary. . .
Like any stimulant or sedative narcotic, hemp may be abused
as when taken to produce an intoxicant or deliriant effect, but this
abuse is rare and there is reason to believe has been grossly
exaggerated. . .
I believe it to be an exceedingly useful therapeutic agent, one
not likely to lead to abuse, and producing in proper dosage no
The latter comments are pertinent in terms of later allegations of an
‘‘amotivational syndrome’’ attached to people who engage in daily use
of cannabis. Apparently, physicians of the age noted no such effect
employing hemp preparations in their patients.
Ethan Russo 51
In a note added in proof, the editor stated (p. 1357), ‘‘Dr. R. B. Wild
remarked that cannabis indica–was also of value in certain cases of
Lewis (1900) reported on Cannabis indica (p. 250), ‘‘In migraine,
hemicrania, neuralgias, and headache due to eye-strain, it may be used
with marked success.’’
In a contemporary text (Wood and Wood 1900), the authors stated
(p. 166), ‘‘In full doses in neuralgic pains, it certainly often gives
relief. . . . As first suggested by Seguin, hemp extract, administered for
months continuously in such dosed as will keep just within the limit of
distinct physiological effects, is often effective in migraine.’’
Marshall (1905) opined that other medicines had supplanted canna-
bis for some indications but (p. 451), ‘‘It appears, however, to be
useful in headache of a dull continuous character. The extract in the
form of pills is usually administered.’’
In 1906, a popular treatise continued to discuss smoking as a mode
of medical application (Allbutt and Dixon 1906) (p. 965), ‘‘the drug,
generally as ganja, may be smoked, when the symptoms come on
almost immediately but do not last so long.’’
It was also noted of Indian hemp (Allman 1911) (p. 765), ‘‘In full
doses it certainly gives relief in acute neuralgic pains, . . .’’
As late as 1915, Sir William Osler, the acknowledged father of
modern medicine stated of migraine treatment (Osler and McCrae
1915) (p. 1089), ‘‘Cannabis indica is probably the most satisfactory
remedy. Seguin recommends a prolonged course of the drug.’’ This
statement provided continued support of its use for both acute and
Ratnam (1916) repeated Dixon’s quotation in reference to the thera-
peutic effects of smoked cannabis for headache treatment.
In 1918, The Dispensatory of the United States of America stated
(Remington et al. 1918, p. 280), ‘‘For its analgesic action it is used
especially in pains of neuralgic origin, such as migraine, but is occa-
sionally of service in other types.’’ This language was retained in the
21st edition in 1926, and the 1937 22nd edition continued to refer to
an indication for cannabis in ‘‘migrainic headaches.’’
By this time in the 20th century, cannabis was suffering a political
downturn. In 1914, it was dropped from the pharmacopoeia of Ceylon
(Sri Lanka), over the vociferous objections of its adherents, such as
Ratnam (1920) and others. His points of debate included passionate
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
defenses of its medical benefits, and poignant political arguments
based on multiple facts and figures comparing its benignity to the
dangers of other ‘‘recreational’’ drugs. Ultimately, Ratnam addressed
a remaining clinical need for cannabis (p. 42):
‘‘In some cases where there is continued pain in the head lasting
for a length of time, Cannabis Indica seems to help and this may
be given either in the form of extract or tincture. There is no
danger in it. . . . The long continued use of this drug will some-
times relieve these headaches when other things seems to fail.’’
The above authoritative statement was made by Sir T. Lander
Brunton, M.D., D.Sc., L.L.D., F.R.S., Physician to St. Bartholo-
mew’s Hospital and Lecturer on Pharmacology before the British
Medical Association without a dissentient voice.
In the German literature, cannabis use by extract or smoking was
held to be an ‘‘outstanding agent’’ (Dinand 1921, p. 71) (translation
Hare (1922) continued to advocated use of cannabis noting (p. 181),
‘‘For the relief of pain, particularly that depending on nerve distur-
bance, hemp is very valuable.’’ He went on to state, ‘‘In true migraine
with hemianopsia this treatment is often most effectual in aborting the
attack. The prevention of further attack is to be attained by the use of
smaller amounts of the cannabis during the intervals . . .’’ An examina-
tion of alternative medications listed in that edition is illuminating:
ammonium benzoate, amyl nitrate, bromide of potassium, croton chlo-
ral, gelsemium, phenacetin, salicylic acid, and sodium phosphate.
Most have passed into obscurity, or are considered ineffective, or even
toxic in modern practice.
Dixon (1923) revisited the issue of smoked cannabis, and decried
the poor quality of drug available in England. His independent bioas-
says revealed effects of smoking imported ganja and charas lasting
only one half-hour. Doubtless, many patients and clinicians were lead
to believe in the herb’s inefficacy by such experiences.
In the years that followed, cannabis came to be perceived as a drug
of abuse, smoked by certain minorities in the USA as ‘‘marijuana’’ or
‘‘marihuana.’’ In an article provocatively entitled ‘‘The Weed of In-
sanity’’ the author nevertheless conceded (Bragman 1925, p. 416), ‘‘It
has some value in the relief of migraine.’’
Ethan Russo 53
The following year, Stevens (1926) remained a convinced user of
cannabis for migraine (p. 1115):
Cannabis indica is sometimes very useful, when a reliable prepa-
ration can be secured. Two drops of the fluid extract may be
given every half hour until the pain abates or until slight dizzi-
ness or mental confusion appears. Even larger doses may be
used, if necessary. Morphin should never be employed, except as
a last resort.
In a definitive tome of the era (Solis-Cohen and Githens 1928) it
was stated (pp. 1704-1705):
Cannabis is of great service in certain cases of migraine not
dependent upon, nor aggravated by, eyestrain. It may be given in
dose of 1/4 to 1/2 grain (0.015 to 0.03 Gm.) of the extract,
repeated in two hours if sleep has not been produced. According
to Mattison, the persevering use of the remedy twice a day for
weeks or months, will in many cases, especially in the young,
blot out this neurotic taint.
At this time, Walther Straub, Professor of Pharmacology of the
University of Munich retained interest in the titration available by the
smoking route (Straub 1931, p. 16), ‘‘More time is required for the
enjoyment of hashish than for opium, but less than for alcohol. It
requires still better dosing, and here the empirical instinct found that
the safest dose can be attained by smoking the substance.’’
In a comprehensive review article on headache, Henry Alsop Riley
stated (Riley 1932, p. 515), ‘‘Cannabis indica has been much used in
the treatment of migraine.’’
Despite its contemporary political downturn in popularity, Fantus
(1933) reviewed therapeutic techniques, recommending (p. 879), ‘‘fluid-
extract of cannabis,’’ ‘‘One teaspoonful in water every two hours until
relieved. (For migraine.)’’
Bastedo (1937) decried the variability of quality of cannabis in his
textbook, but noted (p. 460), ‘‘A good preparation of it may allay
nervous excitability, as after sexual or alcoholic excesses, may lessen
the pain of neuralgia or migraine, and may promote sleep (in the
presence of pain).’’
In 1937, marijuana was rendered essentially illegal in the USA
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
(Baum 1996; Bonnie and Whitebread 1970). Cannabis had become a
phytochemical scapegoat for a perceived social problem, and research
on its medical uses was substantially curtailed. The American Medical
Association vigorously opposed this development (Cary 1937).
Despite this political event, in 1938 Robert Walton published a
comprehensive review of cannabis with botanical, historical, chemical
and political discussions (Walton 1938). After addressing the issues of
its purported abuse, and consequent legislation, he went on to discuss
its utility in migraine, citing many of the above sources. He referred to
twelve major authorities on its efficacy, and one from a detractor (Beck-
man 1938) (p. 595), ‘‘The U.S.P. extract of cannabis (better known as
Cannabis indica) formerly enjoyed the reputation of being almost
specific when used in a pill containing 1/6 to 1/4 grain (0.01-0.015
Gm.), not to be too often repeated, but has latterly fallen into a prob-
ably deserved disrepute.’’
In 1941, cannabis preparations were dropped from the United States
Pharmacopoeia (USP) and National Formulary (NF), but the follow-
ing year, the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Associa-
tion still advocated oral preparations of cannabis in treatment of
menstrual (catamenial) migraine (Fishbein 1942) (p. 326):
In this instance the patient may be given either sodium bromide
or fluidextract of cannabis three days before the onset of the
menstrual period, continued until three days after the menstrual
. . . The dose of the fluidextract of cannabis is five drops three
times daily, increased daily until eleven drops, three times daily,
are taken. Then the dosage is reduced by one drop daily until five
drops are taken three times daily and so on.
As a seeming afterthought, he added, ‘‘Ergotamine tartrate may also
be given.’’ The latter medicine remains in the migraine armament-
arium, some 60 years later, but he considered it inferior to cannabis.
Thus, as demonstrated, cannabis was touted in the mainstream
Western medical literature for a full century as a, or the, primary
treatment for migraine.
Modern Ethnobotanical Data
Despite political issues in the USA, medical use of cannabis contin-
ued elsewhere. In 1947, an ethereal extract of cannabis was employed
Ethan Russo 55
for migraine treatment in Argentina (Kabelik, Krejei, and Santavy
1960). Cannabis was recommended as a homeopathic remedy for
migraine in 1956 in East Germany (Auster and Schafer 1955).
In Tashkent in the 1930’s, cannabis or nasha was employed medici-
nally, despite Soviet prohibition (Benet 1975) (pp. 46-47), ‘‘A mixture
of lamb’s fat with nasha is recommended for brides to use on their
wedding night to reduce the pain of defloration. The same mixture
works well for headache when rubbed into the skin; it may also be
eaten spread on bread.’’
Smith (1911) documented its utilization in China, where cannabis
remained a useful item in the pharmacopoeia (pp. 90-91), ‘‘Every part
of the hemp plant is used in medicine; the dried flowers, the achenia,
the seeds, the oil, the leaves, the stalk, the root, and the juice.’’
Burkhill (1935) noted continuing usage of ganja flowering tops as
one ingredient in a pill for headaches in Malaya. Perry and Metzger
(1980) referred to ongoing use of cannabis in China to treat migraine,
much the same as noted in Thailand (Dhavadee 1987). In other areas
of Southeast Asia its use remains popular (Martin 1975, p. 70):
Everywhere it is considered to be of analgesic value, comparable
to the opium derivatives. Moreover, it can be added to any relax-
ant to reinforce its action. Cooked leaves, which have been dried
in the sun, are used in quantities of several grams per bowl of
water. This decoction helps especially to combat migraines and
stiffness; taken before sleep and before meals, it relaxes the
A very recent study documents the ethnobotanical uses of cannabis
by the Hmong minority in the China-Vietnam border region (Gu and
Clarke 1998). The authors described its medical usage (p. 6):
Some herbal remedies are used by the Hmong, and cannabis
seeds, leaves and stalks are used for various indications. Raw
seeds are thoroughly chewed and used as a poultice in the fore-
head for headache relief . . .
Some older Hmong men may rarely smoke cannabis to ‘‘re-
lieve discomfort,’’ but they are not daily smokers.
Analgesic effects of cannabis have remained noteworthy in the folk
medicine of North Africa (Boulos 1983). As late as 1957, despite
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
governmental regulation in that country, cannabis drugs retained a role
in the indigenous medicine of India (Chopra and Chopra 1957, p. 12),
‘‘The concentrated resin exudate–is considered valuable in preventing
and curing sick-headaches, neuralgias and migraine . . .’’
Nadkarni (1976) observed (p. 203), ‘‘The concentrated resin ex-
udates–is valuable in preventing and curing sick-headaches, neural-
gias, migraine . . .’’ In a subsequent treatise entitled Indigenous Drugs
of India (Chopra 1982) the authors stated (p. 91), ‘‘Cannabis is used in
medicine to relieve pain, to encourage sleep, and to soothe restless-
ness. There is little definite knowledge of the therapeutic effects pro-
duced, but in some persons it appears to produce euphoria and will
often relieve migraine headaches.’’
In discussing the native use of cannabis and opium products by
village doctors in India, who provided 80% of the population with
their medical care, the author of a report to the United Nations felt a
legitimate role for them was still present (Dwarakanath 1965) (p. 19):
These drugs should be allowed to be used by Ayurvedic and
Unani [Arabian tradition] physicians until such time as the bene-
fits of modern medicine are extended to rural areas. Banning
their use by the large mass of Ayurvedic and Unani physicians
for therapeutic purposes may create a vacuum which may not be
easily filled for a long time to come.
Another book about medicinal plants of India stated (Dastur 1962)
Charas is the resinous exudation that collects on the leaves and
flowering tops of plants [equivalent to Arabic hashish]; it is the
active principle of hemp; it is a valuable narcotic, especially in
cases where opium cannot be administered; it is of great value in
malarial and periodical headaches, migraine–Charas is usually
given in one-sixth to one-fourth grain doses.
In a more recent review of Ayurvedic medicine (Kapoor 1990), the
author echoed the above indications but recommended doses of (p. 97),
‘‘ganja [flowering tops of female cannabis plants]–1-2 gr; charas–
Similarly, in Nepal, cannabis remains useful for headache treat-
ment. According to Drs. Purushottam Shrestha and Narendra Nath
Ethan Russo 57
Tiwari (personal communication, July 2000), the Bhavparaksh Nig-
hantu (Misra 1988) describes a technique by which flowering tops of
cannabis are powdered, hung in muslin above a pot of boiling cow’s
milk, and then fried in ghee (clarified butter). Headache suffers, espe-
cially women, take 60-125 mg a day of the treated material.
Dr. Farid Alakbarov reports cannabis use in migraine in Azerbaijan
(Alakbarov 2000) (personal communication, June 2000).
Even today in Iran, the indication for cannabis for headache is
retained. Zargari (1990, p. 434-438, translation courtesy of H. Akhani
and M. O’Yarhossein) notes Cannabis indica products ‘‘can be used to
relieve nervous pains and rheumatism . . .’’ An alcoholic extract with
two other ingredients is also compounded as a ‘‘prescription for recov-
ering [from] migraine pains . . .’’
Examples are also to be found in the New World. In Colombia the
analgesic effects of a cannabis tincture were observed (Partridge 1975,
p. 161), ‘‘the knowledge that cannabis can be used for treatment of
pain is widespread . . .’’ Rubin et al. documented extensive medical
usage of cannabis for a variety of conditions in Jamaica (Rubin 1976;
Rubin and Comitas 1972), including headache. Extensive interviews
revealed that ganja tea was commonly acknowledged to treat head-
ache. Interestingly, among 43 subjects interviewed about their first
exposure to smoked cannabis, headache was the only side effect
among many suggested symptoms that failed to be claimed. Only one
subject noted headache on any subsequent exposure (Lambros Com-
itas, personal communication, July 2000).
Ultimately, a modern study of chronic use of cannabis has been
undertaken in Costa Rica (Carter 1980), detailing medicinal use for
asthma, but also (p. 24), ‘‘The simple smoking of marijuana is claimed
by users to have a number of additional medical benefits. It is said to
cure headaches, hangovers, loss of appetite, impotence, depression
and general malaise.’’ The adoption of cannabis for headache in cul-
tures remote from its Eurasian origins is particularly noteworthy. Sep-
arate citations of identical medicinal claims for a plant for the same
indication is widely acknowledged in ethnobotany as strongly sup-
porting clinical efficacy (Russo 1992).
Recent Research on Cannabis and Cannabinoids
In the next two decades, marijuana moved to center stage of West-
ern consciousness, not as a medicinal agent, but rather as a perceived
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
drug of abuse. Research resumed only slowly, with occasional anec-
dotal reports by patients of cannabis’ benefits on their illnesses.
A popular treatise on marijuana noted medicinal effects (Margolis
and Clorfene 1969, p. 26), ‘‘You’ll also discover that grass is an
analgesic, and will reduce pain considerably.’’
The eminent psychopharmacologist, Solomon Snyder, wrote a pop-
ular, but scientifically noteworthy review of cannabis during this era
(Snyder 1971, p. 10):
Migraine headaches can be so incapacitating that, besides easing
the acute pain, it is important to attempt to prevent future attacks
or at least reduce their frequency and severity. In modern medi-
cine these two tasks are the province of two different types of
drugs. Ergot derivatives, such as ergotamine, alleviate acute mi-
graine headaches, while methysergide (Sansert)–which, interest-
ingly, is a close relative of LSD–is used to ward off future head-
aches. There are indications that cannabis may fulfill both roles.
Snyder examined cannabis’ pros and cons as an analgesic (p. 14):
In one important way, opiates are better than cannabis. They are
stronger pain-killers. For the excruciating colicky pain produced
by a kidney stone or the crushing chest pain of an acute heart
attack, morphine is a blessing. For these conditions, cannabis is
much too weak. But its relatively weak pain-relieving action
could not possibly account for the neglect of cannabis in modern
medicine. For there are many conditions, such as migraine head-
aches or menstrual cramps, where something as mild as aspirin
gives insufficient relief and opiates are too powerful, not to men-
tion their potential for addiction. Cannabis might conceivably
fulfill a useful role in such conditions.
President Nixon convened a National Commission on Marihauna
and Drug Abuse that recommended decriminalization of cannabis use,
and further medical research (United States Commission on Marihua-
na and Drug Abuse 1972, p. 222):
RECOMMENDATION: INCREASED SUPPORT OF STUDIES
WHICH EVALUATE THE EFFICACY OF MARIHUANA IN
Ethan Russo 59
THE TREATMENT OF PHYSICAL IMPAIRMENTS AND
DISEASE IS RECOMMENDED
Historical references have been noted throughout the literature
referring to the use of cannabis products as therapeutically useful
agents. Of particular significance for current research with con-
trolled quality, quantity and therapeutic settings, would be inves-
tigations into the treatment of glaucoma, migraine, alcoholism
and terminal cancer.
The findings of this commission were largely ignored by the adminis-
In 1974 began a series of studies that formally examined effects of
cannabis on pain. Noyes and Baram (1974) described case studies of
five patients who voluntarily employed it to treat their painful condi-
tions. Three of these had chronic headaches. Case 2 pertained to a
graduate student who found smoked cannabis to be almost as effective
at treating acute migraine as an ergotamine/phenobarbital preparation.
The cannabis also seemed to reduce attack frequency (unlike his usual
combination that can produce analgesic rebound).
In Case 3, a housewife had successfully treated headache with
cannabis smoking for a year with ‘‘immediate and lasting relief’’ she
considered superior to aspirin (p. 533). Case 5 pertained to another
graduate student, who over two years found that smoked cannabis
relieved headaches about 70% of the time (comparable to the best
standard pharmaceuticals at present).
A similarly composed research group compared the analgesic effect
of THC was compared to codeine (Noyes et al. 1975). In short, 10 mg
of oral THC reduced subjective pain burdens by similar decrements to
60 mg of codeine, as did 20 mg of THC vs. 120 mg of codeine. This
supports the observations of Hobart Hare almost one century earlier.
Subjects in this experiment tolerated 10 mg of THC well, but 20 mg
produced sedation and psychic disturbances in some relatively elderly
Another government-sponsored commission evaluated Marijuana
and Health (Institute of Medicine 1982), their findings echoing those
of prior studies (p. 150):
Cannabis and its derivatives have shown promise in the treatment
of a variety of disorders. The evidence is most impressive in
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
glaucoma, . . . in asthma, . . . and in the nausea and vomiting of
cancer chemotherapy. . . . Smaller trials have suggested cannabis
might also be useful in seizures, spasticity, and other nervous
. . . The committee believes that the therapeutic potential of
cannabis and its derivatives and synthetic analogues warrants
further research. . .
Greater governmental cooperation in the development of research pro-
tocols in humans was suggested, but the US government printed only
300 copies of the report (Mathre 1997).
In ‘‘Health Aspects of Cannabis,’’ Hollister (1986) addressed pos-
sible medical indications, but his direct experience with cannabis use
in migraine was not broad (p. 16):
Migraine: This indication has not been studied systematically in
recent years, although it has a long history. In one patient I
treated, the mental effects sought socially caused the patient to
abandon treatment. Innumerable successful treatments for mi-
graine have been reported at one time or another.
Mechoulam (1986) published Cannabinoids as Therapeutic Agents,
wherein the author stated and then inquired (p. 16):
For the medical scientist use of cannabis as a therapeutic agent in
the past may serve as a clue to future drug development. Many of
the therapeutic properties of cannabis have been verified with
pure natural or synthetic cannabinoids. In several fields, howev-
er, no modern work exists. The most blatant examples are the
antihelmintic, anti-migraine, and the oxytocic effects. Are we
The following year, another article dealt with the headache issue
more directly (el-Mallakh 1987). Entitled ‘‘Marijuana and Migraine,’’
three cases were discussed in which abrupt cessation of frequent,
prolonged, daily marijuana smoking was followed by recurrent mi-
graine attacks. One patient noted subsequent remission of headaches
with a return to episodic cannabis use, while the two others employed
‘‘conventional drugs’’ successfully. THC’s peripheral vasoconstrictive
actions in rats, or its action to minimize serotonin release from the
Ethan Russo 61
platelets of human migraineurs (Volfe, Dvilansky, and Nathan 1985),
were felt to be possible explanations of its therapeutic effects.
The book Marihuana: The forbidden medicine (Grinspoon and Ba-
kalar 1993) included an entire section on migraine. One clinical vig-
nette documented the medical odyssey of a migraineur through fail-
ures with standard pharmaceuticals. Over a period of 18 years, she
found that a little smoked cannabis and rest for 30 minutes allowed her
to return to work. Both of her daughters subsequently treated their
attacks in similar fashion, but her mother resisted due to its illegality.
The American Journal of Public Health issued a particularly strong
plea for access to therapeutic cannabis (Anonymous 1996, p. 441),
acknowledging its role in ‘‘decreasing the suffering from chronic
Recently, the debate on the subject of ‘‘medical marijuana’’ has
extended to the World Wide Web. One posted document (Mikuriya
1997) is ‘‘Chronic Migraine Headache: five cases successfully treated
with Marinol and/or illicit cannabis.’’ Two patients were prescribed
dronabinol (synthetic THC) for their headaches with improvement,
but some degree of side effects, or difficulties with overwhelming
cost. Both switched to marijuana, with an improved clinical response
and decreasing frequency and severity of attacks. Another family of
three women smoked marijuana acutely with good success in aborting
headache, often in the prodromal phase.
A second Web document entitled ‘‘Cannabis Medicinal Uses at a
‘Buyers’ Club’’’ (Mikuriya 1995) examined the indications that
prompted patients to seek out this treatment. Of the 57 people inter-
viewed, eleven identified migraine as the culprit condition that prompted
their decision to self-medicate with cannabis.
In another Internet document, the author (Terwur 1997) described
regular successful treatment of migraine attacks and associated symp-
toms with cannabis resin in a fashion that did not produce inebriation.
Petro (1997) offered a published account on cannabis use in mi-
graine in which a 34-year-old woman found superior relief and pro-
phylaxis with cannabis as compared to beta-blockers, opiates or er-
gots. Frequency dropped from 3-4 attacks to one per month.
A British group recently reviewed their clinical experience employ-
ing the synthetic cannabinoid, nabilone, as an analgesic, including
neuropathic pain (Notcutt, Price, and Chapman 1997). Nabilone is
employed orally, but causes drowsiness and dysphoria. Several pa-
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
tients cited better pain relief with smoked cannabis, with fewer side
effects. Nabilone was also estimated to cost 10 times as much as street
cannabis. The authors stated (Notcutt, Price, and Chapman 1997, p. 554),
‘‘Cannabis can be cloned and grown to yield a cocktail of cannabi-
noids of known and repeatable concentrations. The illogicalities are
evident.’’ They closed by observing (p. 555):
we must not lose sight of the fact that there are a large number of
patients with chronic pain who might benefit from this group of
drugs [cannabinoids]. Currently their options for analgesia are
limited or non-existent. This is particularly poignant when one
considers the history and safety of cannabis.
Hollister (2000) recently reviewed indications for cannabis. On the
one hand, he states (p. 5), ‘‘for exploratory purposes, any patient with
pain unrelieved by conventional analgesics should have access to
smoked marijuana if they so desire.’’ A few paragraphs later, however,
he decries, ‘‘New drugs for migraine are aimed at pathogenetic mech-
anisms rather than symptomatic treatment. Virtually no literature ex-
ists that support this use of marijuana.’’
Despite this view, the PDR for Herbal Medicines (Medical Eco-
nomics Company 2000) lists Cannabis sativa under its Indications
Index for migraine headache (p. I-103), and states (p. 501), ‘‘Current
literature on phytotherapeutic drugs cite as indications for Indian
hemp: . . . migraine; . . .’’
ALTERNATIVE DELIVERY SYSTEMS
Alternative smoke delivery systems have been investigated for can-
nabis (Gieringer 1996; Gieringer 1996). Reportedly, vaporization of
marijuana makes it possible to deliver even high doses of THC to the
lungs of a prospective patient far below the flash point of the cannabis
leaf, thus reducing smoke, tar and other possible carcinogens. Howev-
er, the standard marijuana joint remained about as effective as any
examined smoking device, including those employing water filtration,
in providing a favorable ratio of THC to tar and other undesirable
by-products. A standardized smoking procedure for use of cannabis in
medical research has been described (Foltin, Fischman, and Byrne
Ethan Russo 63
Suppository preparations of cannabis have been used to advantage
in the past, and may be an acceptable alternative route of administra-
tion for the migraineur, although the advantage of dose titration would
be lost. GW Pharmaceuticals in the UK is researching nebulized and
sublingual preparation with whole cannabis extracts.
THE DISCOVERY OF ENDOGENOUS CANNABINOIDS
AND BIOCHEMICAL MECHANISMS OF CANNABINOIDS
Recently, scientists have provided elucidation of the mechanisms of
action of cannabis and THC with the discovery of an endogenous
cannabinoid brain receptor, arachidonylethanolamide, nicknamed
anandamide, from the Sanskrit word ananda, or ‘‘bliss’’ (Barinaga
1992; Devane et al. 1992; Marx 1990; Matsuda et al. 1990). Ananda-
mide has an inhibitory effect on cyclic AMP mediated through G-pro-
tein coupling in target cells, which, though widespread in the brain,
cluster in nociceptive areas (Herkenham 1993). Preliminary tests of its
pharmacological action and behavioral activity support similarity to
THC (Fride and Mechoulam 1993). Pertwee (1997) has examined the
pharmacology of cannabinoid receptors in detail.
Additional research has elucidated mechanisms of therapeutic ac-
tion of the cannabinoids pertinent to migraine, which are examined
system by system.
CANNABINOIDS AND SEROTONERGIC SYSTEMS
Serotonergic mechanisms have long been implicated in migraine
pathogenesis and treatment. This mechanism has been specifically
targeted in the development of the triptan drugs (Humphrey, Feniuk,
and Perren 1990). THC reduces serotonin release from the platelets of
human migraineurs (Volfe, Dvilansky, and Nathan 1985). Cannabis
has also been reviewed in the French literature (Spadone 1991).
Among other points, the author indicated (p. 21):
As to serotonin, the synthesis of 5-HT is stimulated by THC
(possibly by intermediary augmentation of corticosteroids) as
well as brain 5-HT content. Synaptosomal uptake seems inhib-
ited, while release is favored. [translation EBR]
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
Anandamide and other cannabinoid agonists inhibit rat serotonin
type 3 (5-HT3) receptors (Fan 1995). This receptor acts as a mediator
of emetic and pain responses. The dearth of cannabinoid receptors in
the area postrema (Herkenham et al. 1990; Fride and Mechoulam
1996) coupled with the clinical effectiveness of cannabinoids as anti-
emetics (Abrahamov and Mechoulam 1995), support such an alterna-
Recently, Boger demonstrated an 89% relative potentiation of the
5-HT1A receptor and a 36% inhibition of the 5-HT2A receptor re-
sponses by anandamide (Boger, Patterson, and Jin 1998). 2-AG or
arachidonylglycerol (another endocannabinoid) inhibited 5-HT2A by
28%. Similar effects by THC are likely. These observations support
efficacy for cannabinoids in acute symptomatic migraine treatment
(agonistic activity at 5-HT1A or 5-HT1D) and in prophylactic treatment
of chronic headache (antagonistic activity at 5-HT2A) (Peroutka 1990a
In a similar vein, Kimura et al. (1998) showed that high concentra-
tions of anandamide decreased serotonin and ketanserin binding (the
latter being a 5-HT2A antagonist). Additionally, 11-OH-delta-8-THC
and 11-oxo-delta-8-THC metabolites of cannabis modified serotonin
Ultimately, the author and colleagues have recently demonstrated
pertinent serotonin receptor activity of the essential oil of cannabis
(Russo et al. 2000). Dilutions of these terpenoid components of up to
20,000 in buffer produced displacements of at least 50% of 3H-ketan-
serin from the cloned 5-HT2A receptor, while the same material dis-
placed 3H-8-OH-DPAT from the 5-HT1A receptor at least 50% in dilu-
tions up to 400. This activity provides important evidence for putative
synergistic activity of cannabis essential oil components with THC in
the preventive and symptomatic treatment of migraine.
The importance of dopaminergic mechanisms in migraine treatment
has received recent emphasis (Peroutka 1997). Dopamine blocking
drugs such as chlorpromazine and haloperidol can be very effective
stand-alone or adjunctive agents in migraine, but are significantly
Ferri et al. (1986) were able to demonstrate that 6-hydroxydopa-
Ethan Russo 65
mine, which causes degeneration of catecholamine terminals, was able
to block THC antinociception. Stefano and his team showed that anan-
damide stimulates nitric oxide formation in lower animals through
inhibition of presynaptic dopamine release (Stefano et al. 1997). They
stated (p. 63), ‘‘cannabinoids and their endogenous effectors play a
prominent role in the regulation of catecholamine release in inverte-
brates . . .’’ Many cannabinoid mechanisms demonstrate teleological
preservation, and similar effects in higher mammals may well be
operative. In a recent review (Mechoulam, Fride, and Di Marzo 1998)
(p. 12), a number of studies were cited as demonstrating that cannabi-
mimetic drugs cause ‘‘inhibition of the dopaminergic nigrostriatal
Müller-Vahl and her colleagues cited previous work (Mailleux and
Vanderhaeghen 1992) in their examination of cannabinoid effects on
the dopaminergic system (Müller-Vahl et al. 1998, p. 504), ‘‘cannabi-
noid receptors were found to be co-localized both with dopamine D1
receptors on striatonigral dynorphin/substance-P-containing neurones
and with dopamine D2 receptors on striatopallidal enkephalinergic neu-
rones.’’ This and subsequent work by her group (Müller-Vahl et al.
1999) demonstrates that cannabis is able to induce a considerable
decrement in the movement disorder of patients with Tourette syn-
drome. This suggests a possible dopamine blocking effect of THC,
which may be clinically relevant without significant sedation, but whose
mechanism remains to be elucidated. Similar effects of THC on the
dopaminergic system may be equally pertinent to migraine treatment.
Leweke et al. (1999) demonstrated elevated levels of anandamide
and palmitylethanolamide (PEA) in schizophrenic patients, stating
(p. 1666), ‘‘anandamide may act as a local modulatory signal to offset
dopamine-induced psychomotor activation.’’ Given the tendency of
schizophrenics to ‘‘self-medicate’’ with cannabis, there is support for
their statement that their findings, ‘‘may reflect a homeostatic adapta-
tion of the endogenous cannabinoid system to neurotransmitter imbal-
ances that involve dopamine.’’ Conjecturally, THC may similarly
modulate dopaminergic imbalances in migraine, and deserves study.
Anti-inflammatory claims for cannabis date back to the Sumerians
binding the head with the herb (Thompson 1949). Modern authors
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
(Burstein 1992; Evans, Formukong, and Evans 1987; Formukong,
Evans, and Evans 1988, 1989) have examined the relationship be-
tween cannabinoids and inflammation. It is well known that anti-in-
flammatory drugs may ameliorate migraine, perhaps through effects
on the ‘‘sterile inflammation’’ of that disorder, as well as effects on the
arachidonate cascade. McPartland (2000) provides an excellent sum-
mary and analysis (McPartland 2000).
Burstein et al. (1973) demonstrated that THC and other cannabi-
noids could inhibit prostaglandin E-2 synthesis, and that the aromatic
moiety seemed to be the critical portion. In 1979, it was experimental-
ly demonstrated that smoked cannabis reduced platelet aggregation
(Schaefer et al. 1979).
Cannabichromene is often the second most abundant cannabinoid
in marijuana after THC (Turner and ElSohly 1981). CBC proved
superior in its anti-inflammatory capabilities to phenylbutazone. The
authors stated (p. 283S), ‘‘it is obvious that the THC content of mari-
huana cannot be used to adequately describe the pharmacologic activi-
ty of the drug.’’
Evans (1991) further analyzed structure-activity relationships of
cannabinoids, stating (p. S65), ‘‘Experiments involving oral adminis-
tration of THC suggested that THC was 20 times more potent than
aspirin and twice as potent as hydrocortisone.’’ Also observed was the
action of CBD as a dual cyclooxygenase and lipoxygenase inhibitor in
various assays. Hampson et al. (1995) were able to demonstrate that
anandamide and metabolites are substrates for brain lipoxygenase.
Although some authors have reported THC as an inhibitor of tumor
necrosis factor (TNF) production, Klein et al. (1998) noted that levels
of the latter might rise or fall depending on the cells and culture
In a recent review (Fimiani et al. 1999), the authors analyze the
respective roles of opiate, cannabinoid and eicosanoid signaling
through a common nitric oxide coupling. They note (p. 27), ‘‘Del-
ta-9-THC blocks the conversion of arachidonic acid into all metabo-
lites derived by cyclooxygenase activity, whereas it stimulates lipoxy-
genase, resulting in an increase in lipoxygenase products.’’ The COX
inhibition of THC may in fact be selective for the COX-2 isozyme, as
more fully discussed by McPartland (2000). Clinically, no increased
incidence of gastric ulceration in chronic cannabis users has been
observed (Stefanis, Dornbush, and Fink 1977; Rubin and Comitas
Ethan Russo 67
1975; New York (City), Mayor’s Committee on Marihuana, Wallace,
and Cunningham 1973), thus supporting its likely selectivity for COX-2.
One essential oil sesquiterpene component of cannabis, caryophyl-
lene, has a gastric cytoprotective effect (Tambe et al. 1996).
The above authors (Fimiani et al. 1999) also noted the morphine-
cannabinoid system modulates the eicosanoid cascade and its pro-
inflammatory cytokine activity through induction of nitric oxide syn-
thesis, averting damaging effects on tissues. They summarized (p. 30),
‘‘Thus, we can surmise cannabinoid-morphine systems are down-regu-
lators of inflammatory processes in an attempt to restore homeostasis.’’
Additionally, cannabis seed has likely dietary benefits as an anti-in-
flammatory agent. It is a rich source of linolenic acid, which promotes
formation of anti-inflammatory metabolites, as well as providing sig-
nificant amounts of gamma-linolenic acid, inhibiting the formation of
pro-inflammatory products from arachidonate (Conrad 1997; Wirtsh-
after 1997; Russo 2000).
Flavonoid components of cannabis may potentiate anti-inflammato-
ry activity. Cannflavin A and B inhibited prostaglandin E-2 production
in human rheumatoid synovial cells 30 times more potently than aspi-
rin (Barrett, Scutt, and Evans 1986). Apigenin, a flavonoid common to
cannabis and German chamomile (Matricaria recutita L. Asteraceae),
had important anti-inflammatory actions on interleukin, TNF, carra-
geenan-induced edema and by inhibition of up-regulation of cytokine-
induced genes (Gerritsen et al. 1995). Quercetin, another flavonoid in
cannabis, serves as an antioxidant, and inhibits hydrogen peroxide-
mediated NF-kappaB activity (Musonda and Chipman 1998).
Finally, various terpenoid essential oil components of cannabis
demonstrate anti-inflammatory effects at physiologically appropriate
levels (McPartland and Mediavilla 2001). Burstein et al. (1975) have
examined the essential oil fraction of cannabis, demonstrating eugenol
as potent in prostaglandin inhibition. Alpha-pinene and caryophyllene
have proven to demonstrate anti-inflammatory activity in the rat hind-
paw edema model from carrageenan or by PGE-1 (Martin et al. 1993).
CANNABINOID INTERACTIONS WITH OPIATES
AND ENDOGENOUS OPIOIDS
In ‘‘Cellular Effects of Cannabinoids’’ (Martin 1986), the author
reported that naloxone did not block the analgesic properties of these
substances, supporting a non-opioid mechanism.
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
THC experimentally increases beta-endorphin levels (Wiegant,
Sweep, and Nir 1987). Depletion of endorphins has been measured in
the CSF of migraineurs during attacks (Fettes et al. 1985), and may
contribute to hyperalgesia and photophobia. Early exposure to THC in
rat pups boosted adult levels of beta-endorphins in specific brain
areas, while also raising substance P (Kumar et al. 1990). The perti-
nence to human patients is unclear. Mailleux and Vanderhaeghen
(1994) have also demonstrated that THC regulates substance P and
enkephalin mRNA levels in the basal ganglia. Manzanares et al.
(1998) have shown THC is able to promote increases in beta-endor-
phin in rats.
Meng and his group (1998) demonstrated that THC is involved in
an analgesic brainstem circuit in the rostral ventromedial medulla that
interacts with opiate pathways. They observed (p. 382), ‘‘the release
of endogenous opioids in the RVM mediates both the inhibition of
‘on’ cells and the antinociception seen after activation of neurons in
the midbrain periaqueductal grey.’’
Cichewicz and her group (1999) have suggested an opiate sparing
effect of THC might be employed clinically in pain patients, echoing
claims of the 19th century pioneers of Indian hemp.
Many analgesic effects of cannabinoids cannot be reproduced by
opiates, however, particularly in cases of neuropathic pain (Hamann
and di Vadi 1999). Especially in migraine, opiates may aggravate the
condition, or even promote its appearance de novo (Nicolodi 1998).
Therapeutic doses of morphine were unable to relieve migraine attack
and increased hyperalgesia in migraineurs when administered in head-
ache-free intervals. Additionally, 65% of chronic opiate users devel-
oped migraine during or subsequent to their addiction.
Meng’s results are discussed above (Meng et al. 1998). In a recent
publication Manzanares et al. (1999), cited that chronic cannabinoid
administration could similarly promote hypothalamic production of
beta-endorphin. This effect may be important with respect to auto-
nomic and chronometric effects of migraine.
AND THE PERIAQUEDUCTAL GRAY
In 1996, researchers demonstrated antinociceptive effects of del-
ta-9-THC and other cannabinoids in the periaqueductal gray matter in
Ethan Russo 69
rats (Lichtman, Cook, and Martin 1996). The PAG is a putative mi-
graine generator area (Goadsby and Gundlach 1991; Raskin 1988),
and is integral to ascending and descending pain pathways, fear and
anxiety (Behbehani 1995).
Weiller et al. (1995) examined migraineurs during attacks with
positron emission tomography (PET), demonstrating various sites of
regional blood flow increase. Those increases persisted in brainstem
areas, including the PAG, after successful treatment of the attacks with
sumatriptan. The authors posited migraine to reflect an imbalance in
activity of brainstem centers mediating vascular tone and antinocicep-
tion. Similarly, Castro et al. (1997) demonstrated a differential tritiated
sumatriptan binding in human PAG, again supporting the crucial na-
ture of that locus in migraine pathophysiology.
Manzanares et al. (1998) suggested that cannabinoid-mediated anti-
nociception in the PAG is produced by activation of endogenous op-
ioids. This is further supported by the fact that subchronic THC ad-
ministration elevates proenkephalin gene expression in the PAG.
A very recent analysis (Walker et al. 1999), has demonstrated that
electrical stimulation of PAG in the rat stimulated anandamide release
and CB1 receptor-mediated analgesia. The system was tonically ac-
tive, and cannabinoid antagonists produced hyperalgesia. The authors
posited that this cannabinoid modulated pain system would support
the prospect of approaches with cannabinoids to opiate-resistant syn-
NMDA, GLUTAMATE AND MIGRAINE
A trigeminovascular system has long been implicated as subserving
pain, inflammatory and vascular effects of migraine. An important
neurochemical link of the NMDA/glutamate system to trigeminovas-
cular nociception in migraine has been reviewed in detail (Storer and
Goadsby 1999). In essence, painful stimuli in the head produce trans-
mission in the trigeminocervical complex through both NMDA and
non-NMDA-mediated mechanisms. One of the observed mechanisms
of the triptan drugs in migraine is their ability to block glutamate
release and trigeminocervical transmission through modulation of
5-HT1 receptor subtypes. The authors called for newer agents that
would affect this system without vascular side effects of the triptans.
Shen et al. (1996) elucidated basic mechanism of cannabinoids in
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
glutamatergic systems. Through G-protein coupling, cannabinoid re-
ceptors inhibit voltage-gated calcium channels, and activate potassium
channels to produce presynaptic inhibition of glutamate release. This
effect was noted with endogenous and synthetic cannabinoid receptor
agonists, and was felt to be key to their analgesic responses. ‘‘Psycho-
tomimetic’’ or rather, dissociative side effects of strongly active agents
on the NMDA system (e.g., phencyclidine, ketamine) were noted,
while (p. 4333), ‘‘better tolerated drugs appear to be less efficacious
inhibitors of glutamate activation, but retain neuroprotective efficacy,
consistent with reduction, but not abolition, of glutamate receptor
activation.’’ Natural cannabinoids fit this profile, as demonstrated in a
subsequent study (Shen and Thayer 1999), wherein THC served as a
partial agonist acting presynaptically via CB1 to modulate glutamat-
ergic transmission through a reduction without blockade.
Similarly, Hampson and colleagues demonstrated a 30-40% reduc-
tion in delta-calcium-NMDA responses by THC (Hampson, Bornheim
et al. 1998), which was eliminated by a cannabinoid antagonist. This
group has subsequently provided elegant demonstration of the ability
of the THC and cannabidiol components of cannabis to act as neuro-
protective antioxidants against glutamate neurotoxicity and cell death
mediated via NMDA, AMPA and kainate receptors (Hampson, Gri-
maldi et al. 1998). These effects seemed to occur independently of
cannabinoid receptors, and support presumptive benefit in cerebral
ischemia, as observed in migraine infarction. The natural cannabi-
noids were more potent in their anti-oxidant effects than either alpha-
tocopherol or ascorbic acid.
Italian researchers Nicolodi and Sicuteri (1995) have recently eluci-
dated the role of NMDA antagonists in eliminating hyperalgesia in
migraine and possibly other conditions in a series of articles. They
demonstrated that ketamine was able to ameliorate migraine both
acutely and prophylactically through NMDA blockade. A ‘‘secondary
hyperalgesia’’ in these patients, manifested by an increased response
to noxious stimuli in areas adjacent to the pain was also diminished.
They suggested NMDA blockade as a remedy for chronic daily head-
ache (Nicolodi, Del Bianco, and Sicuteri 1997), and related mecha-
nisms of pain in defects of serotonergic analgesia in fibromyalgia
(Nicolodi, Volpe, and Sicuteri 1998), which is frequently comorbid. In
a most recent study (Nicolodi and Sicuteri 1998), they elucidate mech-
anisms by which a genetic predisposition (‘‘tertiary hyperalgesia’’)
Ethan Russo 71
may lead to a ‘‘chronicization’’ of migraine through NMDA stimula-
tion. Gabapentin and ketamine were suggested as tools to block this
system and provide amelioration. Given the above observations and
relationships, it is logical that prolonged use of THC prophylactically
may exert similar benefits, as was espoused in cures of chronic daily
headache claimed in the 19th century with regular cannabis usage
This concept is bolstered by examination of another series of ar-
ticles by Richardson and her group. One study examined peripheral
mechanisms (Richardson, Kilo, and Hargreaves 1998), wherein can-
nabinoids acted on CB1 to reduce hyperalgesia and inflammation via
inhibition of neurosecretion of calcitonin gene-related peptide
(CGRP) in capsaicin activated nerve terminals. This is akin to mecha-
nisms of ‘‘sterile inflammation’’ observed centrally in migraine where
CGRP is felt to be an important mediator. At the spinal level, her
group noted an antihyperalgesic effect of cannabinoids (Richardson,
Aanonsen, and Hargreaves 1998a), mediated by CB1. Additionally,
experimental cannabinoid receptor blockade induced a glutamate-de-
pendent hyperalgesia, suggesting a tonic activity of cannabinoids in
averting such a development. Once more, an inhibition of CGRP
release was noted with anandamide. On this basis, they suggested the
clinical of cannabinoids in disorders (p. 152) ‘‘characterized by prima-
ry afferent barrage.’’ Inasmuch as an increased potency of cannabi-
noids was observed in hyperalgesia (p. 152), ‘‘may mean that there are
dosages of cannabinoids that would be effective as antihyperalgesic
agents but subthreshold for the untoward psychomimetic effects.’’
This is reminiscent of Dixon’s patients, able to return to work after
treating their headaches with a few inhalations of cannabis (Dixon
Elaborating on these themes, Richardson noted that a decrease in
lumbar cannabinoid receptor numbers correlated with hyperalgesia
(Richardson, Aanonsen, and Hargreaves 1998b), and could provide an
etiology for certain chronic pain states, especially those unresponsive
to opiate treatments, stating (p. 456), ‘‘Accordingly, drugs that activate
cannabinoid receptors or gene therapy directed at increasing activity
of the cannabinoid system may have therapeutic use in treating certain
types of chronic pain.’’
An even more recent study (Li et al. 1999) supports these conten-
tions. The synthetic cannabinoid agonist, WIN 55,212-2 was employed
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
to block capsaicin-induced hyperalgesia in rat paws much as has been
observed for THC in formalin treatment paradigms. The authors stated
(p. 30), ‘‘These studies support the notion that cannabinoids can block
hyperalgesia at doses which do not produce analgesia or affect motor
function.’’ They continued (p. 31), ‘‘low doses of cannabinoids may
represent a novel therapeutic approach for alleviating hyperalgesia–
without the unwanted side effects typically associated with these com-
Ultimately, Ko and Woods (1999) examined local THC administra-
tion and its activity on capsaicin-induced pain in rhesus monkeys.
Once more, THC effectively reduced pain, which was blocked by a
CB1 antagonist. THC was effective by injection, at a dose that produced
no behavioral change or sedation. The authors observed (p. 322),
‘‘Cannabinoid agonists may be effective treatments for nausea associ-
ated with chemotherapy, pain, migraine and epilepsy.’’ Critics may
point out that the above studies examine peripheral and spinal mecha-
nisms, but are not applicable to supraspinal systems. This seems un-
likely. Maneuf et al. (1996) were able to show a tonic activation of the
cannabinoid system serving to reduce GABA uptake in the globus
The above studies, taken ensemble, provide intriguing evidence that
cannabinoid systems may prove to integral to nociceptive pathways in
SYNERGISM AND THE ENTOURAGE EFFECT
Another potent endogenous cannabinoid with analgesic effects has
recently been described (Calignano et al. 1998). Palmitylethanolamide
(PEA) is released with from a phospholipid in conjunction with anan-
damide. The two compounds achieve a 100-fold synergism on CB1
type peripheral receptors in cutaneous tissues. It has also been shown
that endogenous cannabinoids and their inactive metabolites combine
to boost physiological responses (the ‘‘entourage effect’’) (Mechou-
lam and Ben-Shabat 1999). Given the likely contributions of cannabis
flavonoids and essential oils to therapeutic effects on mood, in-
flammation and pain reviewed in (McPartland and Pruitt 1999), one
can easily see support for Dr. Mechoulam’s quotation (Mechoulam
and Ben-Shabat 1999, p. 136), ‘‘This type of synergism may play a
role in the widely held (but not experimentally based) view that in
Ethan Russo 73
some cases plants are better drugs than the natural products isolated
ON THE CANNABINOIDS IN MIGRAINE
Migraine is relatively uncommon before age 10, and very much so
before age 5. When present, it may be manifested as ‘‘acephalic mi-
graine,’’ or migraine without pain, or as a number of other formes
frustes such as cyclic vomiting, abdominal pain, or paroxysmal verti-
go. The reason for this developmental quirk has never been elucidated.
A detailed developmental mapping of cannabinoid receptor binding
in humans has been performed (Glass, Dragunow, and Faull 1997),
and may shed light on this issue. Cannabinoid binding is low in the
brainstem except for the substantia nigra, spinal trigeminal and tractus
solitarius nuclei and the periventricular gray matter, demonstrating an
interesting homology with sumatriptan binding in the human brain
(Castro et al. 1997). In the adult, midbrain central gray binding of
tritiated CP55940 was 21 " 12 femtomoles/mg of tissue, whereas, in
the neonate, the value was 157 " 11, some 7.5 times greater (Glass,
Dragunow, and Faull 1997). Similar increased density of cannabinoid
binding is seen in other areas. A decremental decline in cannabinoid
binding was observed developmentally.
Given the reported role of the PAG in pain modulation and mi-
graine, it is interesting to conjecture that this decline in its cannabinoid
binding allows the subsequent development of migraine pain in the
older child or adult. The emesis and abdominal pain of migraine
appear early in its ontogeny, but it is clear from previous study that this
mechanism is not mediated by cannabinoid receptors.
What of other phenomena of the young? Could it be that the eidetic
images, childlike wonder and ready laughter of youth are a manifesta-
tion of their greater expression of cannabinoid function? As adults are
we consigned to suffer the pain, and lose the intensity of image and
imagination? This conjecture is surely worth considering.
VALUE AND PLACE OF CANNABIS
IN MIGRAINE TREATMENT
The information reviewed above indicates that cannabis has a long
established history of efficacy in migraine treatment. Clinical use of
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
the herb and its extracts for headache has waxed and waned for 1200
years, or perhaps much longer, in a sort of cannabis interruptus.
It is only contemporaneously that supportive biochemical and phar-
macological evidence for the indication is demonstrable. Cannabis’
unique ability to modulate various serotonergic receptor subtypes,
inhibit glutamatergic-mediated toxicities, simultaneously provide anti-
inflammatory activity and provide acute symptomatic and chronic
preventive relief make it unique among available treatments for this
This author’s personal experience in communicating with several
hundred migraineurs who have employed cannabis is that 80% have
noted improvement, often with complete symptomatic relief. That this
has occurred without any quality control of the herb whatsoever is
most compelling. Many report the ability to titrate their dosage
through smoking so that they achieve relief without cognitive or motor
impairment. The latter is not the case with oral THC (‘‘dronabinol’’ or
Marinolr), whose slow and variable gastrointestinal absorption and
conversion to more intoxicating metabolites (11-hydroxy-delta-9-THC)
have made it a poorer choice for most migraineurs.
Reports of surveys of undertaken by Dr. Tod Mikuriya on 2480
patients served by the Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Club indicate that
127 or 5% sought cannabis for primary treatment of chronic migraines
CANNABIS, AND THE IDEAL DRUG FOR MIGRAINE
Some years ago, this author mused on the pharmacological attrib-
utes of an ‘‘ideal drug’’ for headache treatment (Russo 1992). Based
on contemporary knowledge, these included: stimulatory activity on
5-HT1 receptors for acute relief, antagonistic activity on 5-HT2 recep-
tors for prophylactic benefit, antagonism of 5-HT3 receptors for anti-
emesis, boosting of depleted endorphin levels, inhibition of substance
P, freedom from gastrointestinal upset, and reasonable cost. Nowa-
days, we might add inhibition of NMDA receptor activity and CGRP
release. It seemed wise to consider that no single agent that met these
requirements existed, or could even be conceived. Currently, that
judgment requires revision. Cannabis, particularly considered as an
admixture of THC, other cannabinoids, flavonoids and essential oils,
Ethan Russo 75
seems to fulfill all of these criteria. That proof is offered historically,
with anecdotal case studies, and with examination of its biochemical
basis. Now all that is required in clinical correlation in modern con-
Migraine remains a serious public health issue despite the recent
development of 5-HT1D-agonist medications. In the USA, an esti-
mated 23 million Americans suffer severe migraine. Of those, 25%
have four or more episodes per month, and 35% have one to three
severe headaches each month (Stewart et al. 1992). An estimated 14%
of females, and 8% of males miss some part a day of work or school
each month due to headaches (Linet et al. 1989). Migraine has been
estimated to account for an economic impact of $1.2 to $17.2 billion
annually in the USA in terms of lost productivity (Lipton and Stewart
Although sumatriptan has effected an admirable advance in treating
acute migraine, problems remain. While rapidly active subcutaneous-
ly, its oral absorption is relatively slow, and absorption of any agent by
this route may be notably impaired or impossible in the migraineur.
One may inadvertently treat the headache attack too early: sumatriptan
and its analogues are ineffective when administered in the ‘‘aura
phase’’ of classic migraine (Bates et al. 1994; Ferrari and Saxena
1995). Despite its status as the current most effective agent in acute
migraine treatment, injected sumatriptan (Imitrexr) has been ineffec-
tive in up to 30% of patients, or has produced undesirable side effects
for up to 66% (Mathew 1997). Headache recurrence after triptans
remains a common clinical pitfall. Unfortunately, repetitive dosing,
and development of agents with longer half-lives does not totally
solve the problem (Ferrari and Saxena, 1993, 1995). It is a curious
feature of sumatriptan that it is said to pass the blood-brain barrier
poorly. Some researchers posit that the condition itself results in easier
passage of the molecule. Newer agents with improved central nervous
system penetration have been synthesized, but have not notably im-
proved efficacy. Some may result in more frequent chest and throat
tightness, numbness, tingling, anxiety, and other side effects (Ferrari
and Saxena 1993, 1995). Most importantly the triptan class of medica-
JOURNAL OF CANNABIS THERAPEUTICS
tions does not reduce the frequency of migraine attacks. The older
drug dihydroergotamine, has some prophylactic benefit but is best
administered intravenously, and is not well tolerated by some. Thus,
the triptans, however impressive, may represent a therapeutic dead
end. Considering these shortcomings, alternative treatment agents re-
main an important priority.
Based on the above review, it is convincingly the case that ‘‘medical
marijuana’’ deserves formal scientific scrutiny for migraine treatment.
Such clinical trials may reveal whether cannabis fulfills current crite-
ria as a safe and effective treatment for migraine. Smoked cannabis
would be preferable to butorphanol nasal spray (Stadol-NSr), which
has remained an unscheduled drug approved in the USA for migraine
treatment notwithstanding its addictive potential and attendant mor-
bidity and mortality (Fisher and Glass 1997).
Although evidence suggests that delta-9-THC is primarily responsi-
ble for clinical benefits of cannabis smoking in migraine, investigation
of the effects of different cannabis strains rich in tetrahydrocannabiva-
rin (THCV), delta-8-THC, or certain flavonoids and monoterpenes may
be clinically fruitful. Use of high potency material for smoking, or
alternative delivery systems may provide improved cost-benefit ratios.
Solving the above issues may render cannabis or future synthetic can-
nabinoids well suited to migraine treatment. Given the multiple mecha-
nisms by which cannabis affects migraine pathophysiology, it may
come to pass that the disorder is eventually recognized as an endocan-
nabinoid deficiency disease, or a disorder of cannabinoid regulation.
In closing, a unique dance of medical science and politics is occur-
ring that will soon decide whether herbal cannabis (a derivative, or
synthetic analogue) will rise like the legendary phoenix to resume an
ancient role as a remedy for migraine and neuropathic pain.
The author would like to thank the following individuals and orga-
nizations: The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies
(MAPS), for past monetary support of research applications. Paulette
Cote of Western Montana Clinic Library, the Inter-Library Loan De-
partment at the Mansfield Library of the University of Montana, and
the Center for Health Information of St. Patrick Hospital for dedicated
Ethan Russo 77
service in locating obscure references. Drs. Tod Mikuriya and Lester
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Rustem Medora, and Chuck Thompson of the Department of Pharma-
ceutical Sciences, University of Montana for their guidance; the Herb-
al Research Foundation and NAPRALERT for assistance on ethnobo-
tanical information; Dr. Samir Ross for his initial suggestions on
author’s inquiries about experimental research on cannabis; Rob Clarke,
Farid Alakbarov, Yi-Li Wu, E.M. Beekman, M.A. Powell, Purushot-
tam Shrestha, Narendra Nath Tiwari, H. Akhani, M. O’Yarhossein,
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Grotenhermen, Manfred Fankhauser, Joe Zias, Candice Martin, Harvey
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