November 22, 2023

Language Matters:

Why Don't We Say 'Marijuana' Anymore? by Will Matteson

A middle school teacher recently approached me after a presentation to ask why the heck I kept using the term 'cannabis' instead of the more familiar 'marijuana.' The question was a fair one; after all, marijuana is the much more common term for the cannabis plant, which also goes by a slew of street names including: weed, pot, ganja, grass, and reefer, to name only a few of the more old-fashioned ones. The answer was not simple or short. The Maine Prevention Network, our state's authority on substance use prevention, recently asked us to remove 'marijuana' from our messaging and always use the term 'cannabis' instead. Their reasoning was vague, but after doing some digging, I discovered that there is good reason to drop the M-word from our vocabulary.

The best information on why 'marijuana' is a problematic term can be found in an article from NPR's Code Switch program, entitled "The Mysterious History of Marijuana" by Matt Thompson. The story provides an intriguing overview of the history of the cannabis plant, which has been used for its psychotropic properties by many cultures around the globe for over a thousand years. But it's hard to know where and when, exactly, the term 'marijuana' came into the American vocabulary. Thompson offers a few of the different linguistic theories that are out there, suggesting that the term could have been coined out of words originating in places as diverse as India, China, or Africa. But the problem with the term indisputably comes out of the fraught history between the United States and Mexico.

It would be easy to say that 'marijuana' is no longer an appropriate word to use because it was born out of anti-Mexican sentiment in the U.S. But Thompson points out that it's not quite that simple. In the 19th century and before, farmers in both the U.S. and Mexico grew cannabis, mostly for its use in making hemp products, like rope. Back then, everyone called it cannabis, because that is what it is. But as people from other cultures began immigrating into both countries, they brought with them the ancient practice of using the plant to get high. This use coincided with the social upheaval in Mexico that culminated in the Mexican Revolution. It was the reactionary Mexican government that began to associate cannabis-use with the rebelling underclasses and coined the term 'marijuana' to be used in propaganda suggesting that users were dangerous criminals and political dissidents. This usage was later imported by the United States and used in our own propaganda against the revolutionary government. So, while the term may not be anti-Mexican exactly, it was definitely used in a xenophobic context to exclude people from the American identity.

American propaganda associating 'marijuana' with violent criminals was used not only to generate fear of Mexican immigrants fleeing the revolution, but also to stigmatize Black, Asian, and Native peoples who used the drug. This xenophobic propaganda led to the criminalization of cannabis, which became a tool of oppression against these communities and their fights for civil rights.

So, there's your history lesson for the day. But there is another important reason to shift our vocabulary. It's one that Thompson doesn't touch on, and that's accuracy. Marijuana has often been used to describe the drug that gets us high, while cannabis is the more scientific term for the plant the drug comes from. Cannabis is the most precise term for the plant, but even it no longer captures the full truth of how cannabis use fits in to modern culture. With the rise of concentrates and edibles, it's really THC that is the substance being used, and maybe that is how we should refer to it. THC is what gets us high, THC is what's addictive, and THC is what we can overdose on when it's highly concentrated, an increasingly common phenomenon. Using the term more often may help us realize that this substance is not just a harmless green plant.

There are still a million different names out there for the plant we call cannabis. Call it by its many nicknames if you like but remember that term 'marijuana' is loaded with a century's worth of racial animosity, violence, and oppression. Probably best to retire that one. Good thing there's no shortage of alternatives!

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