The M Word: Is It Cannabis or Marijuana?

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“Same thing that my nigga Elvis did with Rock n Roll. Justin Timberlake, Eminem, and then Macklemore.”

White people have the uncanny ability to lay waste to cultures that would’ve been perfectly fine had they just left it alone. Ask any person of color what happens the moment their traditions become trending topics scratching through the vibrations of valley-girl accents – they’ll tell you death or some form of an end. Language, food, and customs have been run into the ground on a repeat basis.

They’ve ruined Mac & Cheese by adding fucking BRUSSEL SPROUTS. They’ve ruined neighborhoods by moving themselves in with suitcases stuffed with discomfort; fully prepared to disregard anything insignificant to them. They’ve shitted on hairstyles, dance moves, and culturally specific terminology, like “Bye Felicia” without considering the reference.

Instead of just supporting what is already put in place by people of color, they “discover” it, capitalized off of it and/or fuck it up. Like this mess here…

The sweat, blood, and tears of POC have been printed into dollars and pressed into diamonds for white people’s gain for generations. It isn’t surprising to learn that it was a rich white man who dipped the word “marihuana” in a bath of racist and xenophobic propaganda. For this reason – as marijuana becomes more acceptable nationwide – advocates are suggesting consumers stop using the term and instead refer to it by its scientific name, cannabis.

For centuries people of color haven’t been able to keep what they’ve cultivated. The word marijuana is a victim of gentrification. Its origins are not racist; its racial association was intentional to gain public approval for prohibition. Clearly, it worked.

The Origin of the Word Marijuana (Marihuana)

From Aztec language Nahuatl to the Chinese word ma ren hua, meaning “hemp seed flower,” marijuana’s linguistic roots are still pretty debatable. The specific word, as it is spelled “marihuana,” though, derived from Mexican Spanish. It appeared in an 1846 publication of the Mexican Pharmacopeia, a book containing lists of natural medicines and other drugs.

Mexicans who immigrated to the U.S. brought with them the practice of using cannabis recreationally as well as the term marihuana. In the U.S. at the time, cannabis was commonly used in medicines. White people were already familiar with it. The word “marijuana” was foreign. And it’s important to note that America strongly embraced anti-Mexican sentiments nearly a century before marijuana prohibition, and that helped it stick like shit to the bottom of a shoe.

Media outlets played on white fear by associating the “disruptive behavior” of Mexican’s with recreational marijuana. Many, if not most, white Americans ate it up without realizing marijuana was already sitting in their medicine cabinets. Like the time one-third of Americans didn’t understand that Obamacare was just another name for the Affordable Care Act.

Negative propaganda coupled with the perception that crime was linked to people of color, Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the FBI, had enough support to successfully push an anti-marijuana campaign.

“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz, and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.” – Harry Anslinger

By 1931, 29 states had outlawed marijuana. Then in 1936 the anti-marijuana movie, “Reefer Madness” was released, and just a year after came the Marijuana Tax Act.

Marijuana was the “killer weed,” a foreign influence on American life that was capable of transforming healthy teenagers into sex-crazed maniacs. Anslinger later admitted that he somewhat exaggerated the dangers of marijuana.

Reclaiming Marijuana For the Culture

What began as an innocent descriptor became terminology used to oppress people of color. It was then transformed into part of a culture that repurposed racially charged campaigns into firewood for rebellion, championed by “Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers.”

Despite all of that, we continue to give weight to its negative association. POC referring to cannabis as marijuana instead are shushed like children whose outspoken honesty is a public embarrassment to their parents. Policing the language of POC isn’t advocacy; it’s just a cute way to prioritize centuries-old white-male comfort.

If there’s psychological power in demonizing language, then there’s psychological power in reclaiming it. The word queer, for example, was originally used in the late 19th century as an insult to gay people. Now it connotes an inclusive celebration of fluid, human sexuality. So why is the word “marijuana” being treated like an ugly stepchild?  

You heard it while sitting on the front porch of meemaws’s house. You heard it in the bass of tunes that detailed hood life, love life, everyday life. You heard it as your elders pressed it against nickel-sized plastic bags as a means to an end. It’s tangled into foundations. It’s a part of the culture.

Marijuana was first a Spanish word Mexican’s used to reference cannabis long before it was popularized in the U.S. to broadcast racism.

Placing expectations on POC to code-switch in order to satisfy identity politics or centuries-old propaganda reinforces the idea that the word marijuana itself is inferior, and it’s not; it’s just… different.


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