The word ‘marijuana’ racist?

The word ‘marijuana’ racist?

Bruce Barcott

Acouple months ago legislators in Washington state removed the word marijuana and replaced it with cannabis in the state’s legal codes.

The bill’s authors did so because “the use of the term ‘marijuana’ in the United States has discriminatory origins.” They deemed the term cannabis more scientifically accurate.

But then the primary author of the new law made a bolder statement. “The term ‘marijuana’ itself is pejorative and racist,” state Rep. Melanie Morgan said. “It was used as a racist terminology to lock up Black and brown people.”

Morgan’s “pejorative and racist” comment sparked a conversation about our use of the word at Leafly. We take language seriously here. We’re all too aware of the power of words to shape debate, create stigma, pass laws, and deny personal freedoms—especially when it comes to cannabis. Words can heal and words can harm.

We’ve long known that marijuana has a complicated history. But is it actually pejorative and racist?

Over the past few weeks I asked cannabis experts and my own Leafly colleagues for their input.

It turns out there’s no easy answer to the question. During our conversations, it dawned on me that we get into trouble when we demand a binary answer to a nonbinary question. We ask: “Is this word offensive?” But in most cases language doesn’t work like that. Words live, breathe, and evolve in an atmosphere of cultural context.

Origin of the word

Historian Isaac Campos, author of the book Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs, is the leading authority on the origin of the word. He traces it to botanists conducting research in Mexico in the 1850s. Those early naturalists noted that the local population had taken to calling the plant previously known as pipiltzintzintlis by a new name: mariguana. That word, Campos noted, would go on to “conquer the lexica of most of the Western Hemisphere.”

David Downs, Leafly’s California bureau chief, tipped me to Campos’ book. “Marijuana is an authentic indigenous Mexican term that has cultural and historical validity from the 1800s through the present day,” Downs said, “even if others abused it for political aims in the 20th century.”

1930s: Demonizing the plant with a word

Marijuana held few negative connotations until the 1930s, when prohibitionist crusaders like Harry Anslinger, working with the Hearst newspaper chain, used it to demonize what had previously been known as hemp or cannabis.

By calling it marijuana, Anslinger meant to cast a menacing, xenophobic shadow over good old patriotic hemp. And let’s be clear: By calling it marijuana, the intent was to frame cannabis as a dark-skinned threat to notions of white American innocence and purity.

Queen Adesuyi, senior national policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, noted that the word didn’t originate as an anti-immigrant slur. “The word marijuana was not originally created to stigmatize the plant,” she told me. “Rather, it was used in a political way to stigmatize the plant and the people associated with the plant. Where we see the actual harm of the use of the word marijuana is in the federal legal code, because it was intentionally used to align the plant with Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans, in order to incite xenophobia and bigotry. But the word itself is not a slur.”

“The word cannabis is very disconnected to most communities,” she said. “Your average person does not refer to the plant as cannabis.”

“As we’re working to advance legalization across the country, what we don’t want is a complete whitewashing of the history of marijuana criminalization and the impact that’s had on people of color,” Adesuyi added. “This is something we’re seeing the industry do. There’s an active attempt to revamp what the plant means, and who it represents.”

“When you think about ‘the new face of cannabis’” presented by some companies, she said, “it oftentimes is not in alignment with [those most affected by] the stigmatized and criminalized history of the plant.”

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