The language of cannabis: understanding the history and racial implications of the term ‘marijuana’

Talking about cannabis respectfully and responsibly.

by

Polln - Emily O.

August 2022

table of contents

4

min read

‘Cannabis’ and ‘marijuana’ are terms used more or less interchangeably in the cannabis industry, but a growing debate has emerged around the use of the term ‘marijuana’ within industry and healthcare settings.

At a time when cannabis arrests still disproportionately affect minorities, when racism continues to have an effect on cannabis research1 and when racial bias in healthcare leads to poorer outcomes and lower-quality care for racial and ethnic minorities, is it time for the industry to retire a word with a discriminatory past?

What are the origins of the word marijuana?

Historian, scholar and author Isaac Campos attributes the origins of the word marijuana to botanists conducting research in Mexico in the 1850s. In his book, Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs, Campos found that these early researchers discovered that the local population had begun referring to the plant previously known as ‘pipiltzintzintlis’ by a new name – ‘mariguana’ – which would then go on to ‘conquer the lexica of most of the Western Hemisphere.2 The exact origins of the word prior to this usage are unknown.

So while the term has been abused for political aims and to stigmatise and incite xenophobia against the plant and the people associated with it since the 20th century, marijuana is itself a term indigenous to Mexicans that did not originate as a slur, one that has had cultural and historical validity since at least the 1800s.

How has the term been demonised?

Throughout the 19th century, medical journal articles, news reports, advertisements and medication packaging in the West almost exclusively used the terms ‘hemp’ and ‘cannabis’ to refer to the plant. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the term ‘marijuana’ came into use in the US, namely because anti-cannabis groups sought to frame cannabis as a threat to American notions of whiteness and purity of the time. Thus the term was intentionally used to align the cannabis plant with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in order to play off anti-immigrant sentiments, incite xenophobia and demonise the plant.

Prior to the 1930s, the term held few negative connotations. But this incitement of fear and bigotry by anti-drug campaigners, coupled with the 1925 Geneva Convention and global moral panic surrounding the drug itself, played a large part in the resulting state restrictions of the plant before it was federally prohibited in the US. This then contributed to the ongoing and disproportionate criminalisation of racial minorities who use the drug, despite usage rates being almost the same between white and non-white people.

Does it matter who is using the term?

The cultural position and intent of the speaker as well as the context they are in are important things to consider when we look at who is using the term ‘marijuana.’ Is the term being used to celebrate or appreciate its origins? Is it merely being used to describe the plant? Is it being appropriated by a business or brand to sell a product? Or, is it being used as a slur or a way to demonise the plant or the person consuming it? These questions, alongside the question of who is speaking, can help us to understand when the term might be appropriate, and when it might be offensive. 

Something important to consider here is that unlike some slurs – which often have offensive origins but may have been reclaimed by the community they once targeted (for example, the word ‘queer’) – the term marijuana did not originate as a slur. It is only through its discriminatory usage by white people in positions of power that the word developed its problematic history. It is understandable then that many would object to the use of the term by people and organisations who hold privilege or power, who are ignorant to the word’s problematic history, or who use the term without acknowledging its past and the ongoing discrimination that has resulted from it.

How can we use the word ‘marijuana’ responsibly?

For many communities – especially those disproportionately affected by cannabis stigma and criminalisation – ‘cannabis’ is not a word people feel connected to, whereas ‘marijuana’ may hold more cultural and historical significance. It can be argued that labelling the term marijuana as racist or cancelling the term altogether would both alienate these communities and erase the complicated history of the term and the impact it has had on them. 

Today, in Australia and across the world, many still use the term ‘marijuana’ or ‘medical marijuana’ when searching for information about cannabinoid medicines and treatment. By erasing the word marijuana altogether, healthcare providers and medicinal cannabis companies risk losing a portion of their audience – that is, patients who may not be able to find accurate, up to date information about the options available to them. It’s important then to consider how we in the industry use language to talk about our products and services, so that they remain accessible to all who need them. 

Where to from here?

Ultimately, it is up to the people and communities most impacted by the discriminatory use of a term to determine how it should be used, and who should use it. But these communities are not a monolith, and there is no singular answer to the question of whether the term ‘marijuana’ is an offensive one. Ongoing discussions around the language and words we use, how we use them, and how their meanings may evolve over time are essential in order to acknowledge the harms that have been caused while working towards a more inclusive, just and safe future for cannabis patients and users in Australia and beyond.

Where we stand

At Polln, our biggest mission is to make natural therapies more accessible to the patients who need them while overcoming the stigma and biases that exist for medicinal cannabis patients and patients from all backgrounds who seek to access the quality care they need. We do this by prioritising diversity and inclusion at all levels of our business – from our doctors to our Care Team, business leaders and coordinators – and by putting our patients’ needs above all else. 

While we as a team are predominantly ‘cannabis-first' when we talk about cannabinoid treatments and therapies, we acknowledge the need to make our services and content as inclusive as possible. With marijuana still being a highly searched term, we will use it from time to time throughout our Library to include those patients who may be searching for valuable health information about these treatments. With this article, we hope to provide some context and educate our community on the history of the term so that they can make informed decisions about the language they choose to use when they talk about cannabis. 

As a business in the healthcare and medical cannabis industries with an understanding of our privilege and position, we do not wish to claim, misuse or appropriate the term ‘marijuana’ by using it to talk about medicinal cannabis in Australia. Instead, we opt for the scientific name – ‘cannabis’ or ‘Cannabis sativa’ – throughout our website, services and patient interactions. We will always remain open to the discourse surrounding this topic and encourage our patient community to do the same! And, as always, we welcome all thoughts and feedback.

To learn more about our values and commitment to a more inclusive healthcare, head to our About page.

References
  1. Solomon R. Racism and Its Effect on Cannabis Research. Cannabis Cannabinoid Res. 2020 Feb 27;5(1):2-5. doi: 10.1089/can.2019.0063. PMID: 32322671; PMCID: PMC7173675.
  2. Campos, I. Home grown: Marijuana and the origins of Mexico's war on drugs. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2012.

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