Marijuana Or Cannabis: Is There A Correct Way To Call This Plant?

Introduction – The plant with multiple-personality disorder

The first truth about cannabis is that it is no doubt a fascinating plant, cultivated by humans for thousands of years, and a pharmacological treasure trove. The other undeniable truth is the wealth of linguistic terms that exist to describe it. Weed, dope, pot, and ganja are just a few of the many names currently used world-wide to identify the plant species officially known as Cannabis sativa L. Yet, when most people think about cannabis one word stands out, marijuana. Despite its ubiquity, the reasons behind its global spread, reveal a complex web of social, cultural, and political battles that have been at the heart of the struggle to legitimize Cannabis sativa L.

The word marijuana is assumed to have originated in Mexico, although the plant is not native to that country. The precise etymological roots of the word have long been debated and remain a mystery. What is clear about the word marijuana is that it has a complicated racial and abusive history, which has led some (including us here) to abandon its use for the more precise and scientific term cannabis. We have come a very long way from the days of “Reefer Madness”, with the creation of a legitimate medical and recreational industries revolving around this plant. Despite this, the words cannabis and marijuana continue to be used, almost interchangeably. We dare ask, is there a right or wrong way to call this plant?

Origins of the word cannabis

Words to describe cannabis are as old as the plant’s use by humans. Linguistically, the word as it is used today comes from the modern Latin for hemp. Derived from the Greek word kannabis and akin to Old English hænep, meaning hemp. As the formal scientific botanical term to describe the species, cannabis was proposed and standardized by the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus. In 1753 he would go on to publish the groundbreaking book Species Plantarum. It is here where Linnaeus lists and classifies every plant species known at this time by establishing the binomial naming structure of genera and species. Thus, the genus is Cannabis and the species sativa, with the binomial name being Cannabis sativa L. The L, in honor of Linnaeus the first person on record to taken the time to properly classify this plant. Although, cannabis is also considered to have a few sub-species, those exist beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, for the next 150 years cannabis would be the go-to word for scientific and medical texts looking to accurately identify this plant.

Marijuana, marihuana, or mariguana?

Let’s make one thing clear from the outset, the word marijuana does not exist in Spanish. The Real Academia Española, the languages governing body has only accepted two words to informally identify this plant, marihuana (the “h” being silent) and mariguana. The word marijuana is an Anglicized version of these words, first introduced into American English and then global lexicon, by Mexican immigrants crossing into the United States during the late 1800’s early 1900’s. Although, we are not completely sure how this word became part of the Central and South American vernacular a few plausible theories exist.

  1. The term may have originated from a native Mesoamerican or Andean word, possibly from Nahuatl or Quechua groups. Then adopted by Europeans and introduced as the term for cannabis in Mexican Spanish. However, it is known that the Spanish brought cannabis (hemp) to Mexico and the Americas for cultivation and use in rope and fiber, little evidence exists that they used it psychoactively. Since cannabis simply was not present in the America’s prior to European conquest, it seems unlikely that an indigenous word for this specific plant would have been available.
  2. Another theory suggests that Chinese traders to the Americas might have given the plant its name. The Chinese name (ma ren hua) which translates to “hemp seed flower” might have been converted in Spanish by the locals into “marihuana” or “mariguana”. It could have also evolved from the colloquial Spanish way of referring to Chinese oregano “mejorana”.
  3. It could be that Angolan slaves brought to Brazil by the Portuguese carried with them the Bantu word for cannabis, ma-kaña.
  4. The word could have even possibly originated in South America as a portmanteau of the girl’s names Maria and Juana, although this would not explain why it is only called marihuana or mariguana in Spanish.
  5. Or even as a slang term used by Spanish soldiers to describe brothels.

Despite years of research on the topic, the truth behind the origin of the word marijuana remains a mystery. We are simply left to speculate as to where it came from.

Marijuana becomes a dirty word

It is common knowledge that marijuana (Cannabis sativa L.) has been entangled with race and ethnicity in the Americas, even before the word was formally adopted into popular culture. In the 19th century, news reports and scientific articles often used the plant’s scientific designation, Cannabis sativa L. It was during the early 20th century that we began to see the word marijuana become popular in the United States. Initially, the main reason being anti-cannabis groups that wanted to underscore the plants “Mexican-ness”. This was meant as a way to play off of anti-immigrant sentiments within the United States (which of course has never happened again…).

This reaction was largely triggered by the waves of Mexican immigrants crossing the United States southern border after the Mexican Revolution of 1910. These peasants were met with widespread prejudice, for who they were and their traditional ways, including smoking marihuana. In Texas police claimed the drug incited violence, aroused blood lust, and gave users superhuman strength. Rumors spread that Mexicans were giving this “killer weed” to unsuspecting white schoolchildren. West Indian immigrants also brought cannabis smoking to Gulf Coast cities, such as New Orleans. Newspaper articles linked the drug to jazz musicians, prostitutes, and the underworld. Essentially, racist officials in the United States created an imaginary “Marijuana Menace” that was personified by “inferior races and social deviants.”

In 1937, US Narcotics Commissioner Henry Anslinger testified to the US Congress in hearings that resulted with passing the Marihuana Tax Act. Anslinger’s testimony included a letter from Floyd Baskette, editor of the Alamosa, Colorado Daily Courier, which said “I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigarette can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That’s why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons, most of who are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions.”

The word marijuana appealed to the xenophobia at the time. Harry Anslinger has been documented saying “there are 100,000 marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. The marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and others.”

This anti-cannabis crusade wasn’t isolated to the United States, Mexico was also targeting cannabis users. Historians believe this may have been done largely because of the stratified classist structure in Mexico. Making it much harder for poorer communities to get by and find relief. In fact, Mexico made cannabis illegal in 1920, 17 years before the United States.

“I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigarette can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That’s why our problem is so great…”
Floyd Baskette – Colorado Daily Courier

Regardless, even today after commoditizing cannabis little has changed. the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) shows a disproportionate number of arrests (in particular for possession) befall Latino and African-Americans, despite similar usage rates to Whites in the US. In 2016, there were almost 600,000 arrests for marijuana, more than all violent crimes combined. Even within the administration of the current US President Donald Trump, at the highest levels of his cabinet animosity exists against those who consume “marijuana”. Especially, if those that break the law are black or brown, while the business owners remain overwhelmingly white.

Arguments in favor of using the word marijuana

Some people, including professor of Southwest Studies at Colorado College, Santiago Ivan Guerra, believes that the word marijuana is not racist. That in fact, it was once used in rebellion first against the Spanish Conquistadores by native Mexicans, then by people being supressed by the US Government in the 1930’s. That replacing “marijuana” with “cannabis” would erase its complex history. That “the term should continue to be used so that people have to be reminded about this problematic history and the problematic relationship we have with this plant and the type of relationships that it created between different populations.” In a similar manner Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, can’t imagine a world where teens say, “let’s do some drug-type cannabis.” “You’re going to want to use the language that corresponds to the way ordinary people use the drug.” He does not believe marijuana will ever be replaced in the global vernacular. But concedes, that words are always changing their meanings.

Conclusion – A rose by any other name smells just as sweet…?

One fundamental truth is just how much global, geopolitical, and historical weight is wrapped around this seemingly simple word. History that affects the lives of men and women every day. Moreover, the language and words we use, relates to the way we think, as well as other people’s perceptions and associations. It is my opinion that using the word cannabis legitimizes the plant in its fundamental form. Thinking about the scientific name for this specific plant species strips away the social, political, and historical associations of this once illegally trafficked and “crime inducing” product.

Medical producers, federal legislators, and research scientist are returning to cannabis as the preferred term. During a meeting of the New Brunswick Provincial Legislature on November 16, 2017, Finance Minister Cathy Rogers said the word marijuana “has a derogatory history, and pot has street connotations. Cannabis is the best word.” Tammy Jarbeau, a spokesperson for Health Canada suggests cannabis is the preferred term because “it includes more products than marijuana,” which Health Canada defines as “the dried flowers, leaves stems and seeds of the cannabis plant.” This is particularly evident with the passing of the Cannabis Act on October 17, 2018, which legalized cannabis in Canada.

Using the word cannabis allows the listener a small window into the speakers views on it. Demonstrating that a “normal”, intelligent, contributing member of society is willing to talk about this plant honestly and transparently. I believe it also imparts a small level of respect for what this plant really is, a useful medicinal therapeutic, and agricultural tool used by humans for millennia.


Why it can be okay to call it ‘marijuana’ instead of ‘cannabis’, The Verge

Weed, cannabis, pot or marijuana: what’s the difference?, CBC

The Difference Between Weed And Cannabis, Forbes

The Word “Marijuana” Versus the Word “Cannabis”, The Stranger

Marijuana: is it time to stop using a word with racist roots?, The Guardian

Here’s why you shouldn’t use the word marijuana anymore, The Ottawa Citizen

Where Did The Word ‘Marijuana’ Come From?, Civilized Life

Piper, A. The Mysterious Origins of the Word “Marihuana”. Sino-Planonic Papers. 2005

Google Search Term Grapher, Marijuana Smoking Terms, 1920 – 2008

Google Search Term Grapher, Medical Weed vs. Medical Cannabis, 1920 – 2008The Difference Between Weed And CannabisReferences

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