The Great ‘Marijuana’ Debate: What’s In A Word?

The exotic-sounding Mexican Spanish word "marihuana" was used as part of the 1930s scare tactics which led to the plant being declared illegal in 1937. But should that mean we can never use the word again? Not unless we're willing to forget the counterculture of the 1960s.

I love the cannabis community. Most of the people working in it have the best intentions and laudable goals. So it hurts me to see the community damage itself with pointless infighting.

The challenge facing those who wish to re-legalize cannabis is difficult and daunting enough without those in the movement inadvertently placing additional roadblocks in our own path. One of those has recently come to my attention because it happens more and more often — and that’s arguing over word etymology and usage, of all things, rather than working to legalize the plant.

Yes, I’m talking about the great “marijuana/cannabis” controversy. Some activists get quite worked up about it, but any pejorative baggage surrounding the term “marijuana” is, at this point, really nothing more than an increasingly irrelevant historical footnote from the distant past.

There are those within the cannabis movement who will tell you with a straight face that the reason the plant is still illegal is because it is called “marijuana.” That’s overreaching wildly.

And you have to ask yourself: How much chance do we stand of changing the minds of the general public about cannabis, when we spend most of our energy fighting amongst ourselves about what to call the damn stuff?

Yes, I personally know of activists that spend way more time and energy attacking other activists — with whom they should be strategizing — for using the word “marijuana”!

This creates another problem, as well. When members of the public at large see some members of the cannabis community shushing and shaming other members for using the word “marijuana,” that sure makes the whole enterprise look iffy to an outsider.

And to someone who has no particular emotional investment either way, it can make it seem exactly as if the community is “hiding” something.

“If there’s nothing wrong with marijuana, why can’t you just call it what it is?” is not an uncommon reaction.

Yes, “cannabis” is the proper scientific term. But in reality, the word “marijuana” a more commonly used — and, to many ears, less stuffy-sounding — synonym for cannabis.

Persistent Misinformation

Contrary to persistent misinformation in the cannabis community, Harry Anslinger, Randolph Hearst et. al., didn’t “create” the word marijuana. Yes, there are those who believe that — in fact, I saw it repeated as fact on Facebook twice just this morning.

Yet, distressingly, there are still websites like that keep the misinformation going by flatly stating the word was created in the 1930s expressly to “tarnish the good image… of the hemp plant.”

There’s absolutely nothing inherently wrong with the word marijuana itself — unless you are prejudiced against the Spanish language or Mexicans. Whatever potency the word must have had to Americans of the 1930s has long dissipated and faded away as Hispanics have become a part of the mainstream.

It’s true that Anslinger, Hearst,, simply appropriated and misused the slang term “marijuana” because it sounded more sinister — to Anglo ears — than “cannabis.” But obviously, the fact that they used a “Mexican-sounding” word for racist reasons does not render the word itself inherently racist.

The term, originally spelled variously as marihuana, mariguana, etc., originated in Mexican Spanish, according to American Heritage Dictionaries. The ultimate derivation is unknown; it may come from the Nahuatl mallihuan, meaning prisoner, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Traditional association with the personal name María Juana (“Mary Jane”) is probably a folk etymology, according to Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.

The original Mexican Spanish used forms with the letter ‘h’ (marihuana). Forms using the letter ‘j’ (marijuana) seem to be an innovation of English, though they later appeared in French and in Spanish, probably due to English influence, according to Oxford.

The word entered into English usage in the late 19th century. According to Oxford, the first known appearance of a form of the word in that language is in Hubert Howe Bancroft’s 1873 The Native Races of the Pacific States of North America.

Through the early 20th century, however, both the drug and the plant were more commonly known as “cannabis” or “hemp”.

“Marihuana”‘s usage in American English increased dramatically in the 1930s, when it was used by prohibitionists as an exotic-sounding alternative name during the debates of the drug’s use — the ugly assumption being, of course, that anything “Mexican sounding” would automatically be suspect.

And that, my friends, is the silly story of how marijuana became a pejorative.

Herer Throws Down The Gauntlet

When author/activist Jack Herer was writing his hemp opus The Emperor Wears No Clothes, he noticed the manipulation of racial/cultural prejudices and how Anslinger’s and Hearst’s popularization of the exotic-sounding term “marijuana” was used in that regard, and he issued a call for activists to stop using the word.

Here’s where I’m going to commit what to some fundamentalists in the movement is a cardinal sin — I’m going to disagree with Herer.

Jack was a good man who accomplished more than perhaps any other writer in the 20th Century in getting the facts about cannabis before the public — but he was also very opinionated and single-minded once he’d made up his mind about something, and he made up his mind that none of us should call it “marijuana” anymore, because of what happened way back in the 1930s.

Well, I beg to differ. There were lots of things happening in the 1930s, and as a matter of course, while I try to learn from them, I don’t let any of them control my language or thinking today — and that certainly includes the word marijuana.

Don’t Forget The Sixties!

The hippies of the 1960s made the word "ours" again.

Whatever cultural significance it may have once had as a racially loaded word was eclipsed in the 1960s, when marijuana was lovingly embraced by the hippie culture and was cast in a positive light.

And that’s the real reason why some people seem to have an irrational prejudice against the word — because that happened within living memory for quite a few of us.

For both those who quaked in fear at the changes represented by the hippie counterculture, and those who celebrated and created it, “marijuana” was one of the battle line words that marked the difference between “straights” and “stoners,” between “Feds” and “heads.”

To pretend that the word “marijuana” is still all about the anti-Mexican prejudices of the 1930s is to pretend that the 1960s never happened — and that’s something I’m not willing to do.

The 1960s changed America forever, and any worldview which attempts to gloss over the societal changes — including consciousness expansion — that occurred during that decade is missing a crucial part of our cultural zeitgeist.

To give up a word so central to the history of the counterculture would be to let the opposition set the parameters of the debate, and to define our terms for us. I’m simply not willing to do that.

Here’s the truth, and don’t forget it: The word “marijuana” was pulled from the 1930s gutter in which it had resided, and elevated to the status of a cultural icon, a hippie touchstone, in the 1960s, and I, for one, will never give it up.

That’s why it will never change my mind when true believers tell me over and over,  “The most insulting word for cannabis is marijuana!”

The only trace of insult around the word “marijuana” is the insult to our intelligence from those who believe that racial and cultural prejudices from 74 years ago should still control civil discourse about cannabis policy today.

The word “marijuana” is nothing to get emotional about — and it’s a very silly thing to divide the cannabis policy movement over. Picky, divisive, petty details are nothing to fuss about when people are being locked in cages for years or even decades. Just this week, Chris Bartkowicz, a medical marijuana grower in Colorado, was sentenced to five years in federal prison. That’s what we should spend our energy fighting — not each other.

It’s time to re-appropriate and celebrate marijuana. It’s time to remember that a word formerly considered a pejorative can be appropriated and celebrated by an oppressed subculture. Gorgeous mongrel that it is, the word “marijuana” can be a symbol of multi-cultural appreciation of the plant we’re discussing.

Steve Elliott is editor of Toke of the Town, Village Voice Media’s site of cannabis news, views, rumor and humor. He likes “marijuana.”


9 Responses to The Great ‘Marijuana’ Debate: What’s In A Word?

  1. +6 Vote -1 Vote +1seabourne
    January 30, 2011 at 11:49 am

    One would think the DEA and ONDCP has doctors or scientists on staff.
    Sadly this is not so – we would like to see that changed and believe it is a step to change.

    Please sign the letter petition to appoint a doctor or scientist to the DEA and ONDCP.

    Thank you!

  2. +6 Vote -1 Vote +1seabourne
    January 30, 2011 at 11:50 am

    To understand medicinal cannabis and adverse effects of prohibition check out

  3. +7 Vote -1 Vote +1Leonard Krivitsky, MD
    January 30, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    Banning everything as a “solution” to problems will never work. In this society of ever-increasing stress levels, how can anyone possibly justify keeping the substance that promotes violence (alcohol) “legal”, while insisting that the substance that suppresses violence (Cannabis) should be kept “illegal”! Total absence of logic. Cannabis is not physically addictive as it has no documented physical withdrawal syndrome associated with its use; smoking Cannabis has been shown to have NO connection with increased risk of lung cancer, the so-called “gateway drug” theory is a non-existent entity altogether, and Marinol is a synthetic THC analogue, which is not at all the same thing as Medicinal Cannabis. This is together with the remarkable medicinal properties of the Cannabis plant, the denial of which is not even a “rational” thing to do! It is as pointed out in the prestigious “Substance Abuse: A Comprehensive Textbook” that states clearly that “Cannabis use suppresses violent behavior and only the unsophisticated think otherwise”. Cannabis prohibition is doing more harm to this society than many people realize, as the (young) people are pushed to “experiment” with alcohol/hard drugs or dangerous, physically addictive prescription drugs, many of which promoting violent behavior instead of suppressing it as Cannabis does. CA Prop. 19 directly challenged the DEA “dogmas”, and it was the reason why it infuriated the “powers that be” the way it did! Unfortunately, many lawmakers are still swayed by the DEA disinformation in all these respects, but one thing is clear: just like other repressive entities before it, the DEA will not be able to defend its mindless “dogmas” by repression alone; sooner or later the American people will clearly see this nonsense, and they will not tolerate it indefinitely!

  4. +3 Vote -1 Vote +1Chris
    January 30, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    The real reason “marijuana” is illegal is because the status-quo don’t want you growing industrial hemp. Not that the type matters as all hemp has the same industrial properties. It’s a sham, a fiat, enforced with guns. They own the country not the people.

  5. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1JD
    January 31, 2011 at 9:29 am

    Great job but I disagree with your contention that the word doesn’t matter. People TODAY still don’t understand that hemp and cannabis are the same. Marijuana is a racist scare word and really should not be used by anyone who wants re-legalization. It is scientifically incorrect and just sounds evil. Cannabis is a much more peaceful word. My father even got mad at me once when I said “cannabis.” He asked me why I tried to “soften” the drug by calling it cannabis? There is truth in the notion that people fear “marijuana” but have less hostile attitudes to cannabis or hemp.

  6. +2 Vote -1 Vote +1Steve Elliott ~alapoet~
    January 31, 2011 at 11:00 am

    Sounds to me as if your dad reacted with hostility to the word “cannabis.”

    In any event, I say we each use the words we feel is necessary to communicate — and that we don’t dictate to each other which words to use.

    There’s nothing inherently racist about “marijuana” just because a few people used the word in that context 75 years ago.

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