Why do we call it marijuana and not its proper name, cannabis?

by | Mar 1, 2018

As legal cannabis becomes a familiar part of everyday American life, you may have heard some conflicting opinions over the usage of the term “marijuana.” Some see no issue with its use, and even many states use the term to refer to their legal programs. However, others have called to attention that the term “marijuana” has prohibitionist, racist origins, used to demonize Mexican immigrants more than a century ago and used to punish people of color today.

The truth, it turns out, is a bit muddier, but there are certainly significant flashes of xenophobia that mar the history of cannabis prohibition and usage of the term marijuana. What’s the history behind these differences — and why does the cannabis industry prefer to call it cannabis?

The demonizing of marijuana may be traced to a century-old misconception

When Mexican immigrants brought the practice of smoking the cannabis flower to the United States in the early 20th century, the anti-marijuana, reefer madness-type stories soon followed. These stories claimed that people who smoke marijuana become paranoid, violently aggressive, and sometimes even die. The rumor mill wasn’t U.S.-centric, either: the same misconceptions were common in Mexico, which outlawed cannabis 13 years before the United States.

Today, it’s clear that the effects of what we know as marijuana – the flower of the cannabis plant – do not lead users to commit rash, homicidal acts, nor does it result in sudden fatalities. Nevertheless, stories of exactly those effects were commonplace in the time period leading up to prohibition in the U.S. Some research suggests that this occurred because there was confusion between marijuana and a plant called “locoweed,” which is poisonous when ingested. Locoweed has absolutely no connection to cannabis, and yet the stories stuck around.

The origin of the term marijuana in the U.S.

Until around the turn of the 20th century, cannabis was a popular ingredient in many pharmaceutical products, used to produce industrial textiles, and hashish use was gaining prominence among the wealthy class. However, cannabis and its derivative products were rarely, if ever, called marijuana; the prevailing term, then, remained simply “cannabis.”

In 1910, Mexican immigrants began crossing the border into the U.S. to escape the ravages of the Mexican Revolution. By 1920, nearly 900,000 people had entered the country, stoking xenophobic fears among white Americans. At the same time, the Mexican term “marihuana” — and the aforementioned fear that the plant made its consumer violent — began gaining traction in the U.S. This finally culminated with cannabis prohibition in 1937, a storied and complicated history in itself best saved for another blog, with legislation entitled “The Marihuana Tax Act.”

Using the term marijuana today

The use of the term “marijuana” today is pretty much out of habit: that’s how it was encoded into law in 1937, and consequentially, that was the term most commonly used in discussion. While the public is far more familiar with the term marijuana, the growing industry prefers the term cannabis, because it is more accurate and divorced from the propagandized past of prohibition. Cannabis not only refers to the entire plant, rather than just the flower, but it invokes the more mature and professional image the industry is hungry to embody.

However, it’s pretty hard to discuss the term without acknowledging the racist implications the term had in the first place. The switch from “cannabis” to “marijuana” in the United States was one of the ways Mexican immigrants entering the country more than a century ago were demonized — a convenient scapegoat for society’s ills for the nationalists and white supremacists of the day.

There is no denying that cannabis and racism have been tied up in the same sordid history. That history continues today, as arrests for cannabis possession disproportionately target people of color. Black Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for cannabis possession as white Americans, even though whites and black Americans use cannabis at roughly the same rates. In New Jersey, that figure fluctuates between three and five times the rate of white Americans, depending on the county. This racist effort is ongoing in the era of legalization, destroying lives and costing states more than $3.5 billion in enforcement and incarceration funding each year, even though 60 percent of Americans support legalizing recreational cannabis.

So as we move on from the era of prohibition, so too should we move on from the era of racist fear-mongering and misguided propaganda. We can start by leaving the term “marijuana” in the past, both in our daily use and in our marketing efforts as much as possible, and educating others about the dark history of prohibition. These are the building blocks for a new industry and the new, evolving perspective on cannabis.