Why Calling It Cannabis, Not Marijuana Is So Powerful

Photo by Burning Trees Media

Is marijuana a pejorative term? Depends on who you ask. But at the risk of patronizing you, dear reader, I implore you to never use that word again. It's "cannabis" to refer to the plant. And now, more than ever, it's important to get that much right. The bad "marijuana" juju runs deep.

For one, referring to the plant as "marijuana" is scientifically inaccurate. There's no such thing as a marijuana plant. And though "cannabis" and "marijuana" continue to be used interchangeably—even in official capacities—they are not the same thing.

The cannabis plant renders in three ways: herb, hashish, and hash oil. Marijuana refers to the herb form—the dried flowers and leaves with which you roll a joint or pack a bowl. But the more experimental you get with your cannabis consumption, the more you stray from what technically qualifies as marijuana.

If you're vaping oils, late-night snacking on edibles, lubing up your nether parts with topicals, or hitting the dabs—don't worry if you have no idea what a dab is!—there's a good chance you've wandered off piste to some other aspect of the plant.

But the more significant reason we don't use the word "marijuana" has nothing at all to do with science and everything to do with history, civil rights, and the case for reparations.

"Marijuana" began as a Mexican folk name for cannabis. But it was first popularized in the US by the notoriously racist publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. You might recognize Hearst's name because it's his empire that still publishes titles like Cosmopolitan, Elle, Marie Claire, Esquire, O Magazine and many others.

At some point, Hearst saw the growing cannabis industry as a threat to his timber investments and decided to orchestrate a nationwide and categorically vicious campaign to wipe it out. His propaganda took to the pages of major American newspapers, telling hideous and wholly untrue stories about people of color committing horrific acts of violence under the influence of cannabis.

He took advantage of a predominantly held racist public opinion at the time. Ultimately, with the help of a bureaucrat named Harry Anslinger, the two men galvanized the federal prohibition of cannabis in 1937 and, eventually, its Schedule 1 classification. Then came Richard Nixon's War on Drugs, the killing of millions, the incarceration of millions more, and the families torn apart.

Throughout it all, "marijuana" became synonymous with evil. And to this day, it persists.

In 2016 alone, almost 600,000 people were arrested in the US for cannabis. That's more people than all other violent crimes combined. And the vast majority of those were for low-level possession, mostly by minorities. Despite statistics that show different races use cannabis at roughly the same rate, minorities are much more likely to be arrested and punished. In fact, between 2001 and 2010, African Americans were arrested for cannabis possession at roughly four times the rate of whites.

It is people of color who bear the burden of the War on Drugs still. The hangover from Hearst and Anslinger's campaigns continue to stymie legalization efforts. And use of the word "marijuana" only perpetuates a narrative that cannabis is a dangerous, addictive substance.

As chief content office of Miss Grass, I've wondered how to tackle the racist history of cannabis. I sit on the privileged side of it all. As a white woman, the fact that I comfortably exist at the frontlines of this greenrush is not lost on me. Who am I to speak about this? And where to begin?

I can begin at the beginning. I can begin with the basics. I can read and ask questions and share what I've learned. I can be open to being told that I got it wrong and correct my mistakes. I can help to build the table and save the seats. I can embrace my civic duty to fight back against what I know to be untrue. I can stand up for the rights of those who have made this moment possible. I can shine a light on the real story, however ugly. And I can work toward a future that is both inclusive and honest.

And so can you.

If the goal is to take back the magic of this plant—and it is!—let us build this foundation of real material. And to do that, let us begin at the beginning: with the words we choose.

Editor's Note, June 2020: As the social and political climates continue to shift, and stigmas around cannabis continue to change, we understand that cannabis terms continue to evolve as well. Many Latinx people have begun to reclaim (and proudly use) the term "marijuana." The intent of this op-ed is not to police word choices, but rather to shed light on the historical demonization of a term that's still propagated by some today.