Marijuana: What’s In A Word?

By Ellen Coplen

New Mexico lawmakers have worked for years to legalize recreational use of cannabis, and the passage of the state’s Cannabis Regulation Act and recent legalization in dozens of other states opens the door for ending the stigma over the plant.  

For hundreds of years, cannabis has been used in rope (hemp), and common household medications throughout the world. It has also been used as a psychoactive for religious and recreational purposes.  Like cocaine, it was an active ingredient in some pharmaceuticals in the early 1900s.  

Most of the negative connotations regarding cannabis are rooted in the word “marijuana,” which was created in the early 1920s. Between 1910 and 1920, thousands of immigrants from Mexico came to the U.S. to escape Mexico’s Civil War and brought with them the practice of smoking cannabis, then known as “locoweed.” Eventually, it was referred to as “marijuana.” Some say “marijuana” originated from the Spanish names “Maria” and “Juan” combined into Maria y Juan, which was also slang for “brothel.” 

No one is quite clear about who actually coined “marijuana.” But with the rise of jazz music and immigrants flocking to the South, many white Americans believed that marijuana was corrupting the minds of lower-class individuals who were using it – primarily Blacks and Mexican immigrants.

Regardless of its origins, the first director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Henry Anslinger, conducted a decades-long war against the use of cannabis beginning in the 1920s. Instead of referring to it as cannabis, he testified before Congress in 1937 and called marijuana “the most dangerous violence-causing drug in mankind’s history.”  

Anslinger tied the dangers of marijuana to his belief that most smokers were “Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana usage.”  In one of his most controversial statements, he blatantly called marijuana a threat to white supremacy: “Reefer makes drakes think they’re as good as white men . . . the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”

It is not surprising that nearly 100 years later, a disproportionate number of people who have been incarcerated for using cannabis are people of color.  

Many cannabis producers and users want to push “marijuana” out of our vernacular and are encouraging a return to “cannabis,” which most countries already use. To illustrate how American “marijuana” is, the Associated Press Stylebook – a journalist’s best friend – recommends using the word “cannabis” outside of the U.S.  In the U.S., the Stylebook refers to “marijuana” as the standard reference for cannabis.

The word “marijuana” has been around in the U.S. for nearly 100 years.  Perhaps its time to put it – and Henry Anslinger’s ugly crusade — to rest.