The cannabis plant has had many different nicknames throughout its history in America; Weed, Hashish, Ganja, Pot, Bud, Reefer, Herb, Grass, Flower, Mary Jane, Marijuana, the list goes on. For the past one hundred years however, the most common word for Cannabis in America has been Marijuana. As America's perception begins to shift and the plant is destigmatized and valued as the medicinal and sustainable versatile crop that it truly is, we should take a look back at how Cannabis came to be called Marijuana. For starters, marijuana is a spanish word that originated in Mexico and was brought to America in the 1900s by legal Mexican refugees fleeting the Civil War. That is why “marijuana” is the only word in the entire English dictionary with a silent “J”.
Before the 1900s the word Cannabis was used in America as the scientific / medical term. Industrial hemp crop was also a common term for Cannabis used for textiles, rope and paper. Both were crucial to the foundation of this country. The idea of smoking cannabis flowers was introduced to mainstream America by Mexican Culture. Shortly after however, the government began to use Marijuana's foreign origin to introduce xenophobic sentiments to target Immigrants and Black people. The plant became intertwined with racist, ethnic propaganda that led to the introduction of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. This created a system expensive enough to not only prevent research and pharmaceutical use of the Cannabis plant, but also to incarcerate massive amounts of Blacks, Latinos and Immigrants caught having the plant. At around the same time, the famous propaganda film known as “Reefer Madness” came out, although originally titled “Tell Your Children”. In the film, high-school students go from a hit and run accident, to manslaughter, suicide, attempted rape, hallucinations, and descent into madness from marijuana addiction. The melodramatic film created enough fear in the American people with the help of the extremely vocal Harry Anslinger. Leading to the stop of legal cannabis altogether. Ansglinger was one of the primary individuals responsible for creating the widely popular stigma surrounding cannabis. Hired as the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, Anslinger launched a campaign against Cannabis; spreading racialized messages to frustrated white audiences, like specifically using the word Marijuana and blaming immigrants for the economic collapse of the country.
In one documented case, Anslinger testified before Congress, stating:
“Most marijuana smokers are colored people, jazz musicians, and entertainers. Their satanic music is driven by marijuana, and marijuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others. It is a drug that causes insanity, criminality, and death — the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”
In another statement, Anslinger also said : “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”
Today the War on Drugs and Cannabis Prohibition continues to tear through our communities. In 2018, there were 663,367 US marijuana arrests, more than all violent crimes combined. The majority of those arrests were for low-level possession – and disproportionately affected minorities.
The entire criminal justice system—from stop and frisks to disproportionate arrest rates, mandatory minimums, the bail system and the inequity in the legal cannabis space—creates the conditions that destroys and oppresses our diverse communities. This leads to the obvious harms of mass incarceration and the psychological effects, such as PTSD, of growing up in an area where police frequently employ stop-and-frisk tactics.
Today “marijuana” is the most common name for cannabis in the United States, its history is deeply rooted in race, politics, and a cultural and some may argue, spiritual and health revolution. As we begin to uncover our American Cannabis history, the power in the terminology and words that we use and spotlight must be filled with intention!
What word do you choose to use ?