Don't Call Cannabis Marijuana

Don’t Call Cannabis “Marijuana”

Why I Don’t Call Cannabis “Marijuana”

[WARNING: There are references to historical quotations and situations that many individuals would consider offensive today. They are included to provide context and are not the words or opinion of the author. ]

“As an industry professional, I eschew the use of the term ‘marijuana’ due to its pejorative, polarizing nature, the emotion it evokes, and the racial undertones it carries.”

Weed. Herb. Smoke. Green. Bammie. Dope. Maui Wowie. Ganja. Bud. Mota. Pot. Reefer. The only thing I can think of that might have more slang equivalents is, well, sex!

What the majority of cannabis users don’t even know is that “marijuana” itself is a slang term. With elitist, racist roots, it is intended to elicit visions of weed-crazed immigrants and other undesirables who had no place in the civilized (read: white) society of the early 20th century. The campaign was very effective, and blame can be equally shared by two equally zealous and self-serving anti-drug proponents, despite that their motivations were quite different.

The term cannabis was in wide use prior to 1920 as the plant and its extracts were legally included in patent medicines (as were morphine/opium, alcohol and cocaine!). The medicinal effects were well understood even if the mechanisms by which they worked were not.

With Alcohol Legal Again, We Need Something Else to Control

Enter one Harry Jacob Anslinger – a more reprehensible excuse for a human being one would be hard pressed to find. He was head of the Federal Bureau of Prohibition (later the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, precursor to the Drug Enforcement Agency or DEA), and wondering what he was going to control next.  With the end of prohibition in 1933, Anslinger had a problem. What makes the whole thing so egregious is the about face he pulled at a time when it served him so well.

Anslinger claimed prior to his reversal that “cannabis was not a problem, did not harm people, and ‘there is no more absurd fallacy’ than the idea it makes people violent” (Wikipedia). Then, once it served him, he began mounting a campaign against use of cannabis and supported it with racially-charged anecdotes aimed at scaring the populace into submission, despite strong evidence of the plant’s medicinal value, and a written submission from the American Medical Association objecting to the proposed ban. Part of the strategy included referring to the plant not by its proper name but rather the slang term “marijuana”, and then charging the term with visions of violent, drug-addled miscreants committing all manner of offenses against the good people of America. Perhaps the most disgusting example is this quotation, from his writings, “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S. and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”

But Anslinger didn’t invent the term. The exact origin is unknown however it most certainly arrived in the U.S. via Mexico. Mexican Revolution versions of the folk song “La Cucaracha” include references to it. But why would such a name – akin to calling the products that the LCBO sells “hooch” or referring to tobacco as “smokes” – have stuck so well?

Enter William Randoph Hearst.

Hearst was openly racist. He publicly maligned Hispanics, the poor, African Americans, and virtually anyone who wasn’t a white American. However, owing to Pancho Villa having relieved him of some 800,000 acres of timberland, Hearst harboured a special hatred toward Mexicans. With a huge newspaper empire he had the ability to shape public opinion and had no hesitation in doing so for his own benefit, Hearst had a good business reason to hate cannabis. He was heavily invested in timber and in his newspaper operations he was using low quality, cheap pulp-based newsprint made from his vast forest holdings. He saw unwanted competition from the higher-quality, longer lasting and inexpensive hemp based paper, and opportunistically lumped industrial hemp with psychoactive cannabis in his public campaign against the evil weed. In addition to featuring Anslinger as a regular editorial contributor, he himself said, “Users of marijuana become STIMULATED as they inhale the drug and are LIKELY TO DO ANYTHING. Most crimes of violence in this section, especially in country districts are laid to users of that drug.”

Medical Marijuana and Other Misnomers

It appears that most jurisdictions – Canada included – are using the term in their regulations involving access to cannabis for medical purposes. In almost all cases the term being used is “Medical Marijuana”. The Canadian federal government does no favours to the business using the term “marijuana” to describe the cannabis plant and its related industry but it appears to be here to stay. This is the only time I will use the “M Word” myself, and only when referring to regulations etc. by their proper names. [Note: After the first publication of this post, the Canadians changed to using “cannabis”]

Speech & language matter. As a university lecturer I’m keenly aware of how language can marginalize and if more people are aware of the racist beginnings the term, surely fewer will use it.