I wrote this piece over a year ago, but never posted it. When I came across it recently, I realized that, although we are making progress in revising the terminology in this industry, it is still relevant to understand the history of cannabis in this country…
Why is ‘marijuana’ a controversial word? Is it racist? Often, my colleagues in the veterinary cannabis industry are surprised when I am reluctant to use the term, preferring to replace it with ‘cannabis’ instead. After all, ‘marijuana’ and hemp are both cannabis plants. However, they are differentiated for legal reasons, based on the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC that each contains. This can be very confusing… but the terms are necessary since the government has forced this distinction upon us.
So, a bit of history on the origin of the word ‘marijuana’ in the United States.
Cannabis professionals today are striving to remove the ‘M’ word from today’s language. This is due to the relatively unknown controversy surrounding its use in early America, as well as the negative stigma that it conjures in the mind. While there are plenty of other slang terms used by generations of youth to describe the plant and its underground use (weed, pot, dope, reefer, ganja, grass… just to name a few), the term ‘marijuana’ has been legitimized. In fact, it is the word that, until very recently, was most commonly used by governments, legislators, doctors, and journalists in the western world…but where did the word ‘marijuana’ come from?
While there is much debate on the origin of the word itself, it exists in the literature as early as 1894 as ‘mariguan’. Variants of the word, with different spellings and pronunciations, have been tied to similar names for herbs in the Chinese, Moroccan, Spanish, Chilean, Brazilian, and Mexican cultures. Regardless of the linguistic history and evolution of the name, the controversy exists due to the early use of the term in the United States.
To preface, understand that throughout the 1800’s and up until the 1930’s, cannabis was used in medicines and herbal remedies throughout the country and called by its proper scientific name. ‘Tincture of Cannabis’ was as common as aspirin. These medications were generally in liquid form and prescribed by doctors. In fact, the pharmaceutical giants of the era mass produced medications such as Chlor-Anodyne® a tincture containing a mixture of active ingredients, including cannabis. These were widely used for a variety of ailments and considered indispensable by doctors of the time.
All the while, in the late 1800’s, a rising anti-Chinese sentiment led to the start of the ‘war on narcotics’ in San Francisco in an attempt to suppress the popular ‘opium dens.’
Then, during the Mexican revolution of 1910, and with the advent of mass immigration from Mexico, another term became popular, ‘locoweed.’ This was a term possibly describing the version of the plant that these immigrants brought with them. The Mexicans also introduced the habit of smoking dried cannabis, previously not a common method of use in the United States.
In the 1930’s, Harry Anslinger, the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, brought the fight against cannabis to the forefront of the ‘war on narcotics.’ He was known as the nation’s first ‘drug czar’ and was the driving influence behind the campaign against cannabis. His outspoken use of the term ‘marijuana’ in a negative context, drove fear into the hearts of Americans by demonizing the plant and those that used it. The deceptive use of the name ‘marijuana’ fooled many who had never heard the word before. They unknowingly would agree with him and then take their prescribed cannabis tincture or other such medication… not realizing that cannabis and ‘marijuana’ were one and the same.
Mr. Anslinger’s comments regarding ‘marijuana’ were decidedly discriminatory. He capitalized on the exotic ‘foreign-sounding’ name to fuel anti-immigrant fears. He said, among other things, that “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.” While testifying before congress, he said that “Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind… most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with negroes, entertainers and any others.” These despicable, prejudicial comments forever changed the public view of this plant by preying on the fears of the masses, already suffering from the demoralizing effects of the great depression.
Then, in 1936, the now infamous movie ‘Reefer Madness’ was unleashed on the public. Originally created by a church group, it became a propaganda film that portrayed ‘marijuana’ users as dangerous addicts prone to murder, rape, suicide, and all manner of debauchery.
Ultimately, these events culminated in the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, effectively bringing about prohibition of cannabis in the United States.
Cannabis advocates are still fighting to overcome this negative stigma today. We hear the term ‘marijuana’ on a regular basis, but after learning how it was used to racially divide and deceive the American public, can it be viewed in the same way? In the end, you can call it whatever you want. But the words we choose have an impact….and for those looking to legitimize the cannabis revolution and all the untapped potential of this powerful plant, we need to start by using the proper, internationally accepted botanical term and give this plant the respect it deserves.