Rethinking Our Use of the Term “Marijuana”

Written by BlackbirdGo January 30, 2019
The History

Words, like people, are constantly changing and taking on new meanings depending on the context in which they are used. As we learn and grow, we must take a look at the words we use and how they reflect the world around us. The word marijuana, popularly used to refer to cannabis, may seem harmless to folks, but its popularization came with an insidious history of racist propaganda and hate.

According to “Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries: English Words that Come from Spanish” by Editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries, the term “marijuana” derives from the Mexican Spanish word “marihuana” and began to gain traction in English toward the tail end of the 1800s. In Spanish, the term can also be seen spelled as “mariguana.” It is interesting to note that the term “marijuana” spelled with the “j” instead of an “h” isn’t derived from Spanish whatsoever. “Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries” points out that once the word “marihuana” was borrowed from Spanish, it was changed to the spelling most people now know. It states, “The spelling marijuana may reflect the influence of folk etymology—some Speakers of English who knew the Spanish term marihuana would also have known the Spanish personal name Mari-Juana, a popular form of María Juana, the equivalent of the English name Mary Jane” (142). All of this points to the fact that the term that most Americans know to be a Spanish word for cannabis isn’t a Spanish word at all.

“Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries” mentions the common belief that the popularization of the term “marijuana” grew at the start of the 1900s by folks who were anti-cannabis and hoped the non-English sounding word “marijuana” would incite xenophobic tendencies in Americans and push the idea that cannabis is “exotic” and a product of “foreign” people.

One of the largest proponents of popularizing the term “marijuana” and its negative connotations was Harry J. Anslinger. Harry J. Anslinger was the 1st Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. In “Cannabis: A History” by Martin Booth, it is made clear that “[Anslinger] did not instigate anti-marijuana policies or prohibition, which already existed, but he did mastermind a very efficient national campaign that was to do much to determine public attitudes toward marijuana and other drugs for over three decades” (174). With prohibition coming to an end, Anslinger needed ways to safeguard his position in the FBN and turned his attention to cannabis.

It is also important to note that Anslinger was operating during a time when the U.S was in the midst of the Great Depression. With tensions high all over the country, this was the perfect time for Anslinger to introduce a new villain to the public. People needed something to blame and if that something was linked to minority groups, such as immigrants and Latinx people, it was bound to gain attention quickly based on the racist political and social climate of the time. Thus, Anslinger began his smear campaign against cannabis. Via his own writing, Anslinger painted a picture of cannabis as a drug used by “foreigners.” In his piece “Marijuana, Assassin of Youth”, he writes:

“THE weed was known to the ancient Greeks and it is mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. Homer wrote that it made men forget their homes and turned them into swine. Ancient Egyptians used it. In the year 1090, there was founded in Persia the religious and military order of the Assassins whose history is one of cruelty, barbarity, and murder, and for good reason. The members were confirmed users of hashish, or marijuana, and it is from the Arabic “hashshashin” that we have the English word “assassin.” Even the term “running amok” relates to the drug, for the expression has been used to describe natives of the Malay Peninsula who, under the influence of hashish, engage in violent and bloody deeds… Marijuana was introduced into the United States from Mexico, and swept across America with incredible speed.”

Once again, it is vital to note the image Anslinger is trying to depict is one where “marijuana” is a key cause of corruption in people of color. He begins with talking about the Greek, but does not vilify them in the same way as the list of people of color that follows. He mentions that the Greeks tried to warn us, while the rest of these people of color indulged in a substance that yields barbaric behavior and violence. And, of course, he ends with the idea that “marijuana” was brought into the states by way of Mexico. In “Marijuana, Assassin of Youth”, Anslinger also tries to push the idea that cannabis was quite easy to acquire and could be found through any local “hot tamale vendor.” With small remarks like this peppered throughout his writing, he reinforces the fact that the substance is being pushed by not just non-white folks but specifically Latinx immigrants and vendors. In this same piece, Anslinger states, “Marijuana is a weed of the Indian hemp family, known in Asia as Cannabis Indica and in America as Cannabis Sativa.” It is telling that, even though Anslinger knew the term cannabis, he continues to use the word “marijuana” throughout the rest of his vitriol as means to continue pushing his racist propaganda.

In today’s society, we’d like to believe that people are more educated on all matters, including cannabis. Our hopes are that none of the aforementioned racist associations are linked to cannabis today, but that is obviously not the case. Although there is more information readily available to folks about cannabis, its components, uses, and benefits, it is difficult for many to move away from the harmful notions that have been attached to it. It is of utmost importance in our current political climate to move away from the term “marijuana” and start referring to it as cannabis or any of the other terms available. The current administration is thick with anti-immigration, specifically anti-Latinx rhetoric, providing all the more reason for folks to stay away from a term that is rooted in linking “drug use” to these specific groups.

Disclaimer: Keep out of reach of children. For use only by adults 21 years of age and older.

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