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February 8, 2014

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Healing with hemp

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Some plants and minerals are considered toxic in traditional Chinese medicine, but combined with other herbs they can be beneficial. Marijuana is one of them, according to Zhang Qian.

While marijuana has recently been legalized in Uruguay and decriminalized in the US state of Colorado, medical marijuana has been used in China for 5,000 years.

Marijuana, cannabis and hemp are collective known as da ma (大麻) — in Chinese, da meaning big or great and ma meaning numbness.

However, possession and recreational use of marijuana is illegal and though some people smoke it, the plant ingested alone is considered unhealthy, even toxic, in traditional Chinese medicine.

Cannabis, typically the mature sativa seeds (huo ma ren 大麻仁) are commonly used in TCM, but almost always in combination with other plants for synergistic effects.

During ancient times in China, cannabis was used in rituals and trances for its psychotropic properties. It was well known to Taoists for alchemy and to those seeking enlightenment.

There’s even Ma Gu, hemp goddess or hemp maid, who is associated with kindness and longevity; she is pictured as a graceful woman holding stalks of cannabis; sometimes holds a hoe and basket of leaves. Sometimes she is accompanied by a deer.

Over the years, all parts of the plant — flowers, seeds, leaves, resin, roots and stalks — have been used to treat a variety of complaints. Cannabis flower was a major ingredient in TCM anesthetics, and the word for anesthetic (ma zui 麻醉) contains the word ma or hemp.

Forms of cannabis have been used to treat nausea, pain, inflammation, constipation, coughing, colitis, rheumatism, bacterial infections, insomnia, anxiety, loss of appetite. It was typically brewed and ingested in herbal decoctions.

Today, seeds (without psychoactive THC) are commonly used in patent laxative preparations. Hemp seed cooking oil (without THC) is popular in some areas and is highly nutritious.

Cannabis protein powder is popular among some elderly people to aid digestion and reduce blood fat and cholesterol.

“Cannabis was once used for many things, in combination with other herbs, but today it is largely used as a laxative, again in compounds,” says Dr Nian Hua, a pharmacist at Yueyang Integrated Medicine Hospital affiliated to the Shanghai University of TCM.

Commercial products from one Yunnan company include cannabis sativa seed protein, fructus cannabis oil (without THC) and oil combined with ganoderma (lingzhi 灵芝) fungus, a famous TCM tonic.

Chinese companies hold at least 309 of 606 patents worldwide relating to cannabis, mostly for textiles, medicine and food, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization. And as legalization spreads, China is well placed to take advantage of medical marijuana and sale of various hemp-based products.

According to China’s State Intellectual Property Office, there are 16 patents in the country for manufacturing edible cannabis sativa seed protein.

China is one of the world’s biggest producers of industrial hemp, which contains very little THC. Growing and processing of hemp is strictly controlled.


Hemp was originally planted for its strong fiber used in ropes and textiles.

Medicinal benefits were discovered around 2700 BC by Shen Nong, a legendary pharmacologist who tested more than 100 herbs on himself to determine their properties.

Long ago, it was thought that ingesting cannabis could promote communication with the gods.

“Eating large amounts of da ma may enable people to witness ghosts ... long periods of use will connect people with the gods and lighten the body,” according to “Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing” or “Shen Nong’s Herbal Classic,” China’s oldest pharmacopoeia completed in first century AD that collected Shen Nong’s findings.

Physician Tao Hongjing (AD 456-536) once suggested that eating cannabis together with energizing and ginseng could enable some people to foretell the future.

Other classics praised cannabis’ psychoactive properties.

Hua Tuo, who lived around AD 145-208, is said to be the first person to use cannabis as an anesthetic. Records indicate he performed successful abdominal surgeries to remove tumors, probably using cannabis for the pain. He used what he called ma fei san (麻沸散), literally numb boiling powder.

His prescription was lost after he was suddenly murdered and physicians tried to reproduce his legendary anesthetic based on its function. Most used hemp.

In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), huo ma hua (大麻花) or flower of cannabis was recorded as a major ingredient in shui shen san (睡神散) or sleeping saint powder.

Today, da ma is no longer used as an anesthetic, but huo ma ren, fried mature cannabis seeds, are used in quite a few TCM laxatives, according to Dr Nian.

Seeds or huo ma ren are considered neutral in energy (neither strong yin or yang) and benefit the digestive system, adding moisture and nourishing organs.


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