Cannabis vs. Marijuana: What’s in a Name?

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Weed, pot, grass, ganja – while the popular herbal intoxicant goes by many names, the two most often used are cannabis and marijuana. Both are technically correct and often used interchangeably, but is one preferable to the other? Which is the more accurate and informed term?

The use of the word “cannabis” has become increasingly popular as the public becomes more educated around the cultivation and use of the plant. It comes from the scientific name, Cannabis sativa, and is used broadly for both the psychoactive version as well as the hemp that is used for food or fiber. Many people believe that this is a more precise and technical term, and preferable for use in professional contexts, as it can be used to describe the many different products that can be made with the plant, as opposed to just the flower buds that are associated with the word “marijuana.”

The word “marijuana” has a long and far more complicated past than that of “cannabis.” Its pre-colonial etymology is debated, but the term “marijuana” was popularized in the US by a fear-mongering campaign designed to support Prohibition-era law enforcement following the abrupt end of the prohibition of alcohol. Harry Anslinger, a former assistant commissioner in the Federal Bureau of Prohibition and the founding commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, reportedly said, “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, 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.”

Harry Anslinger

Harry Anslinger

In response to the influx of Mexican immigrants, Anslinger and others strategically used the Spanish term to further stigmatize the use of marijuana among American citizens, including the targeting of Mexican immigrants and black jazz musicians through the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. According to Alyssa Pagano of Business Insider, “In the first full year after the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, black people were about three times more likely to be arrested for violating narcotic drug laws than whites. And Mexicans were nearly nine times more likely to be arrested for the same charge.” The cultural stigma surrounding marijuana helped lead to its classification as a Schedule I drug (the same as heroin) under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, and the unconscionable disparities in drug law enforcement we continue to see today.

Many people believe that the word “cannabis” is preferable in part because of the racial implications of the word “marijuana.” However, rejecting the term “marijuana” contributes to the erasure of the true history of the word in American vernacular, and is a dismissal of the colloquial term that has naturally caught on in social contexts as well as in more professional ones. In some cases, as in legislation or ballot initiatives, it can be important to use “marijuana” because it is the term with which most are familiar.

Ultimately, any effort to distance ourselves from the complete history of the term “marijuana” can also be seen as whitewashing. The ugly history of prohibition may not be palatable for the middle-class white populations that the multi-billion dollar cannabis industry so often targets, but as a friend and fellow activist Rachelle Yeung recently put it, “Abandoning the word marijuana altogether does nothing to address the racist history of marijuana prohibition, and in fact perpetuates the association between the Spanish word and illegality.” Whatever your preference, it is clear that as the consumption of this valuable medicine becomes legalized and normalized, it will be increasingly important to choose our words carefully.

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