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The M Word: Is It Cannabis or Marijuana?

aerial image of marijuana leaf sitting on top of a box on a grassy lawn

“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 simply left them 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 are driven into the ground on a repeat basis.

They ravaged Mac & Cheese by adding BRUSSEL SPROUTS. They ruined neighborhood practices by moving themselves in, lugging suitcases filled to the brim with articles of discomfort; fully prepared to disregard anything insignificant to them. They shitted on hairstyles, dance moves, and culturally specific terminology, like “Bye Felicia” without respecting 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. For example:

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

For centuries people of color were deprived of what they’ve cultivated. The word marijuana is no different. Its origins are not racist. Its racial association was intentional to gain public approval for prohibition.

And, it worked.

The Origin of the Word Marijuana (Marihuana)

Marijuana’s linguistic roots are controversial and debatable. The specific word, as it is spelled, “marihuana,” derived from Mexican Spanish. It once 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 consuming cannabis recreationally as well as the term marihuana. In the U.S. at the time, cannabis was commonly used in medicines. The American public was already familiar with it. It was the word “marijuana” that was foreign. It’s important to note that America strongly embraced anti-Mexican views nearly a century before marijuana prohibition. This helped prohibition stick like shit to the bottom of a shoe.

Media outlets played on white fear by associating the “disruptive behavior” of Mexicans with the use of recreational marijuana. Many, if not most, white Americans received it without realizing that marijuana was already sitting in their medicine cabinets labeled as cannabis instead. Remember when one-third of Americans didn’t recognize 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 gave Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the FBI, the ammunition and support to successfully promote 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. The Marijuana Tax Act was enacted a year later.

Marijuana was considered a “killer weed,” and a foreign influence on American life somehow capable of converting healthy teenagers into sex-crazed maniacs. Anslinger, foot to mouth, 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, 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 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 signifies an inclusive celebration of fluid, human sexuality.

Why is the word “marijuana” being treated like an ugly stepchild? You heard it while sitting on the front porch of meemaw’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 to satisfy identity politics or obsolescent propaganda reinforces the idea that the word marijuana itself is inferior, and it’s not; it’s just… different.

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