In the beginning, in America, there was only “cannabis.”
Cannabis medicine, derived from hemp, came in an endless array of tinctures, balms and tonics; it was the secret ingredient in many patented treatments used by adults and children alike. Cannabis soothed muscle aches, mental stresses and stomach ailments alike, and through the turn of the 20th century, the remedy remained a popular one in medicine cabinets across the U.S.
It was only in 1910 that the word “marijuana” entered the American lexicon, and it arrived with a massive influx of Mexican immigrants, all fleeing the political chaos of the Mexican Revolution. It didn’t take long for Americans to notice that these new peasant workers had a unique habit of smoking ground cannabis flower for its mildly intoxicating effects, rather than using it for “medicine.” The Mexicans called their psychoactive treat “marihuana” (or “mariguana”), and though linguists still puzzle over the origin of the word itself, the term stuck in America with an anglicized J, laced with negativity and racism toward the new Mexican population.
The pain-relieving tincture in your cupboard wasn’t marijuana? That was cannabis. The stuff being smoked on a corner in the sketchy part of the city? That was marijuana. And fear around the “new” drug spread like wildfire, accelerated by hyperventilating claims that marijuana aroused violence, gave criminals superhuman strength and was being distributed to American schoolchildren. When smoking marijuana grew in popularity along the Gulf of Mexico, newspapers in cities like New Orleans claimed its use was perpetuated by Blacks, “vulgar” jazz musicians and prostitutes. This panicky rhetoric wasn’t a distinctly American response, per se — even Mexican newspapers were fanning the flames of a moral panic around the drug in the early 20th century — but it did trigger a massive shift in opinion about the dangers of hemp.
By the 1930s, cannabis medications had fallen out of favor, and the new Federal Bureau of Narcotics was doing its damndest to make marijuana extinct under American law. Led by racist firebrand Harry Anslinger, the bureau pushed propaganda about marijuana use, pushing “educational” films like Reefer Madness and evangelizing American lawmakers on the horrors of the plant. “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,” Anslinger said while testifying before Congress.
Boosted by the cooperation of news media magnates like William Randolph Hearst (who rallied to the cause of cannabis prohibition), Anslinger’s blitzkrieg lodged the word “marijuana” in the head of every nervous parent in America. In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act passed, criminalizing the plant in every state across the union. It wasn’t the end of recreational pot use, certainly — but the legislation signaled the death of cannabis research and medical use.
Fast forward 70 years, and the landscape is damn near unrecognizable. Marijuana has apparently triumphed over the War on Drugs, and is the new darling of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs trying to get a piece of the pot pie. Adult pot is a bigger industry than the NBA now. Yet despite all of this change, the word “marijuana” is rapidly disappearing from our vocabulary, labeled as a relic of a deeply unwoke past. You can see it in the dearth of companies that actually call their product “marijuana,” for one: Eaze, among the country’s largest pot delivery startups, refers to the product as “cannabis.” So do manufacturers like Kingpen, Jetty Extracts and Bloom Farms.
The shift signals weed’s return to the zeitgeist as a legitimate medical tool, but it also reaffirms just how loaded a term “marijuana” always was. In an explicit example, the pioneering California dispensary Harborside Health Center once featured a dedicated page on its site explaining its choice of terminology: “Most cannabis users recognize the ‘M word’ as offensive, once they learn its history,” it stated. “We prefer to use the word cannabis, because it is a respectful, scientific term that encompasses all the many different uses of the plant.”
But given that the term “cannabis” describes a huge variety of plants, I’m not entirely convinced it’s the more scientifically accurate word at all. In fact, as with other racist slurs, there’s an argument that the loaded history of “marijuana” makes it the perfect word to reclaim and reuse. Consider the fact that a monied investor class continues to propel the future of Big Cannabis into an ever-gentrified, whitewashed future. In this framing, the shift to “cannabis” doesn’t feel like an ethical decision to correct a historic wrong. It just feels like a business tactic that aims to distract us from, say, the staggering number of Black and brown people sent to prison over pot possession.
The fact of the matter is that rich white people now dominate the legal weed market, thanks to a massive influx of new financial power players and entrepreneurs. In that context, hanging onto “marijuana,” and the term’s complicated past, feels like a small act of rebellion.
That feeling isn’t new, either. Santiago Ivan Guerra, a professor of southwest studies at Colorado College, found in his research that the Spanish who first brought hemp to present-day Mexico ordered the native residents to stop growing psychoactive drugs (like peyote and psilocybin mushrooms) and instead use all their land for hemp rope production. Cleverly, the natives discovered that the flowers of the hemp plant could get them high, too, and Guerra claims that a need to speak in code about smoking pot led people to the word “marijuana” — a riff on the new habit of naming plants after the Christian “Mary,” in order to please the Spanish colonizers.
“The term should continue to be used so that people have to be reminded about this problematic history and the problematic relationship we have with this plant and the type of relationships that it’s created between different populations,” Guerra told The Verge in 2018.
As a decade-long pot lover who grew up in the transition from illegal to legal, I’m inclined to agree. I can’t stand how opponents of legal pot, like the law goblin known as Jeff Sessions, bandies about the “M-word” like he’s Anslinger, claiming that “good people don’t smoke marijuana” and regurgitating rhetoric of how it’ll destroy our youth. Meanwhile, the tech and Wall Street suits lobbying Congress and jostling for market position appear committed to the bit of never, ever straying from the antiseptic word “cannabis.”
Let’s throw this dichotomy into the bong water, once and for all. Regular people just don’t say “cannabis” — as Ricardo Baca, former weed journalist (and current head of Colorado pot-PR firm Grasslands) noted to Columbia Journalism Review, people search the word “marijuana” at 10 times the rate of “cannabis” on internet search engines. Those who point to the M-word’s long legacy of racism and discrimination are correct, but that doesn’t mean that erasing the terminology can right historical wrongs. Freeing people with pot convictions would do that, not parroting “cannabis” out of some newfound political correctness.
Not all weed slang has value in 2020 — I’m looking at you, “sinsemilla” — nor do they carry the baggage of past sins like “marijuana” does. But as minor as the dispute over what to call pot might seem, our perception of a cultural object is heavily impacted by the words we choose to describe it. Smoking weed is getting more technical and esoteric by the day; I routinely end up debating things like terpenes, extraction methods and cannabinoids every time I walk into a dispensary. Talking about weed feels more clinical by the day, and while that’s the upshot of new research and development, it also feels like a massive step away from the casual stoner culture of yore.
Embracing “marijuana” as a word won’t stop such shifting tides, but it remains a valuable tether to the past as we careen into a future of mainstream pot. Brands® and lobbyists can work overtime to make this psychoactive plant sound as tidy and scientific as possible. I’ll just be over here, puffing on some mid-grade Mary Jane while they figure it out.