When horses got high: how medical marijuana began with horses

High horse

Medical marijuana seems like a modern phenomenon and, for the most part, its slow march toward legalization has occurred since the 1970s. But the first patients for medical marijuana weren’t people in the 1970s—instead, they were horses at the beginning of the century.

When horses got sick, they got high.

Medical marijuana in the early 20th century

Advocates for medical marijuana will happily tell you about its uses throughout history, but in early 20th century America, cannabis was usually confusing or suspect when it came to medical matters.

Marijuana—usually Cannabis indica—was one of many ingredients in the cough syrups and elixirs sold by both doctors and swindlers. One salesman sold a bottle of Cannabis indica for 16 cents (and was labeled a conman for doing so). Usually sold in pill form or as an ointment, it was supposed to help with coughing and other respiratory ailments (and, of course, some advertisements enthusiastically testified that it did just that).

However, while cannabis for humans remained on the fringe of medicine, for horses it was part of the mainstream.

Horses are treated with cannabis—and it seems to work

In 1914, the American Veterinary Association held a lengthy discussion about the use of cannabis for treating animals, and that conversation provides a synopsis of the treatment.

In 1880, a man named H.C. Wood made an extract from Cannabis indica and found it effective in small quantities. From there, the practice grew. One goal for vets was to find strains that had “less deliriant and more of the hypnotic effect” than Cannabis indica. It was usually used to treat horse colic, because vets believed the cannabis helped alleviate pain and strain. Injections were eventually switched out for oral doses of the drug.

One piece of trivia from the report: dogs needed proportionally more cannabis than horses for the drug to have an effect.Cannabis treatment for horses wasn’t avant-garde: it was a somewhat experimental, but still mainstream, way to help horses with colic. In addition to the American Veterinary paper, as early as 1895, U.S. Cavalry Horse recommended a cannabis mixture to help with colic.

There were side effects, too, of course, and many were similar to those observed in people. Though too much cannabis could lead to a state of narcosis in the horse, no deaths were reported from a tincture or mixture. In 1901, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report on cannabis treatment for horses, noting that large doses caused delirium and, yes, horse pupils dilated when the animals were under treatment.

As time went on, and as Cannabis indica became tied to the stigma and illegality of marijuana, the drug declined in availability and use. Just as marijuana replaced opium as a horse colic treatment, new drugs replaced the newly illegal marijuana.

Its last gasps in the 20s led to some amusing headlines, however. In 1920, a man went to the hospital for accidentally drinking a horse cure. The problem? He took a horse’s Cannabis indica.

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