Sunday, February 8, 2015

Moving on from “Marijuana:” Why Names and Plants Matter in the Age of Cannabis Legalization


Marijuana. Everyone in America knows this word, regardless of how they feel about the offerings of the cannabis plant. But its roots in this country stretch back to a time that very few of us are still familiar with—a time when the drug was widely considered to be as harmful and addictive as opium, and when newspapers blasted out bold, sensationalist headlines linking the psychedelic herb to violent acts of madness, rape, murder, and general mayhem.

For younger generations and cannabis enthusiasts (not assuming the two are mutually exclusive), perhaps marijuana conjures up more of a satirical image, such as its use in the beginning of the Sublime song “Smoke Two Joints.” The song features a gravely concerned male voice from the infamous film Reefer Madness (Duncan McLeod, playing Porter Hall in the 1970 film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) saying he “wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to learn that all four” of the young adults living above him “habitually smoke marijuana cigarettes—reefers.”




Of course, newspapers today are much more objective on the subject, and outside of Nancy Grace and a few other hardline prohibitionists, nobody really believes that cannabis creates murderers or rapists, or turns everyone who uses it into perpetually stoned human derelicts. For that, we can largely thank the dogged persistence of the medical cannabis movement; it has refused to let the plant’s ancient and valuable medicinal properties be run roughshod over by the federal government’s relentless crusade to stamp out all psychedelic substances. 

Despite all the progress we’ve made in understanding the cannabis plant, we still hear the word marijuana—but curiously, never from anybody who actually uses the herb. They usually call it by one of its bazillion nicknames, by far the most common of which are “weed,” “bud,” or “pot.” The dealer who goes to his clients and asks, “wanna buy some marijuana?” will likely be regarded as either a first-time pot dealer or the world’s worst undercover narc (probably the latter).

Though it is starting to compete with cannabis, marijuana remains the “politically correct” term, the term overwhelmingly preferred by lawmakers, physicians, journalists, and even some legalization advocates (who are usually seeking to appeal to lawmakers, physicians, and/or journalists). In addition, many members of the general public who don’t use or aren’t familiar with cannabis also refer to it as marijuana—probably because their experience with cannabis is largely filtered through “official” channels such as news reports, police statements, medical textbooks, or political debates. Even the text of Amendment 64, the ballot initiative that legalized adult use of cannabis in Colorado in 2012, reads “the people of the state of Colorado find and declare that the use of MARIJUANA should be legal for persons twenty-one years of age or older.”

So how did we get here? Why do we still use an outdated and botanically inaccurate term for a plant that most Americans want to see regulated, and that some states are already regulating? More importantly, does it even matter what we call it?

USA Today's Denver correspondent Trevor Hughes wrote an excellent op-ed on this exact subject this past week, in which he notes that some in the cannabis industry are calling for the word's retirement::

"For some, the old and frequently used words evoke the scare tactics long employed by governments and police. There's a school of thought that "marijuana" opponents ginned up the word because it sounded scary and foreign. (Although I can't find evidence that that's the case, despite what Wikipedia might say.)"

He goes on to say that this issue "highlights the challenges of changing how we describe things": 

"You may have noticed I've used a variety of words when referring to marijuana. It's hard to argue readers don't understand that reefer, pot, weed and ganja all mean the same thing. As Shakespeare's Juliet might muse, does the name really matter, be it marijuana or Montague?"

I'd say it does. Here's why (and I promise not to quote Shakespeare):

As the geographer and cannabis historian Chris Duvall has convincingly pointed out, marijuana is likely a Spanish derivative of mariamba, a hybrid Angolan-Portuguese word for drug cannabis with roots in the slave trade of the sixteenth century. Mariamba is the pluralized Portuguese equivalent of the indigenous Angolan word for drug cannabis, liamba. The term crossed the Atlantic on slave ships to Brazil, where it was disseminated to Spanish-speaking parts of the New World, eventually evolving into marijuana.

During the first few decades of the twentieth century, US citizens and politicians appropriated the term marijuana from Mexican Spanish as a way to racialize the cannabis plant. In an era where many Americans were deeply paranoid about foreigners and their corrupting influence, using a Mexican word, marijuana, instead of cannabis emphasizing its foreignness and thus its inherent threat to American society.

So, while Hughes is right that US officials didn't invent ("gin up") the term, they did appropriate and deploy it for racist purposes, namely to drum up popular support for federal cannabis prohibition (and it has been well-documented in books such as Martin A. Lee's Smoke Signals, Richard Bonnie and Charles Whitebread's The Marijuana Conviction, this article, this article, this article, and other sources)

It is true that many public officials and citizens did not initially realize that Mexican marijuana and the cannabis sold in US pharmacies were the same plant; however, newspaper reports suggest this fact became widely known even before federal cannabis prohibition began under the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. Calling cannabis by its foreign name successfully “othered” a plant that had been in the United States for decades, and that was only now attracting the concern of drug-wary public officials on account of its alleged introduction by brown-skinned foreigners (not to mention its well-known affiliation with what the architect of the Marihuana Tax Act, the racist bureaucrat Harry J. Anslinger, called “satanic” jazz musicians).

I should mention that in Mexico today, the term marijuana has largely been replaced by other words, such as “mota.” This is possibly in response to the Mexican government’s adaptation of marijuana in laws that prohibit cannabis use or production; it could also be, as it is in other Latin American countries, a rejection of the United States’ appropriation of marijuana as an official term for cannabis.

The fact that the term marijuana was historically used by racist public officials to stereotype and imprison non-white Americans is reason enough to limit our use of it, especially when it refers to a plant that has been universally coveted by nearly every human society over time.

In places such as India and China, the plant has held an important place in human culture for thousands of years. In that context, using a term appropriated by US racists for racist purposes, all within the last century, seems inappropriate, even negligent. But then again, cultural sensitivity and a stoic appreciation of the past have never been strong suits of an “exceptional” America.

I'll be the first to admit I have bought into this official language business and used marijuana many, many times on this blog. In fact, when I began my research, it was in the subtitle. But as I read more and thought more about it, I've come to better understand and appreciate the history of cannabis in the US, and to disdain the term. I plan to use it much less frequently hereafter.

So if not marijuana, you ask, what should we call the drug product of the cannabis plant? Honestly, both “weed” and “bud” are more accurate terms: “weed” quite accurately describes elements of the plant’s nature, while “bud” accurately describes the parts of the plant that are actually smoked (the flowers). In official language, cannabis (Cannabis indica for pot, Cannabis sativa for hemp) should prevail. 

As Hughes argues, it is highly unlikely that marijuana will ever leave the lexicon of American cannabis culture. Nor should it; as a word that reminds us of the fraught history of the plant in our society, it is an important cultural artifact, worthy of lampooning in Sublime songs, satirical cartoons, or in stoned laughing sessions the nation over.

But for all the reasons mentioned above, the American cannabis culture and industry should at least try to get marijuana out of the official discourse. It shouldn’t be used in the text of official legislation for other states (although as Hughes points out, it will probably have to be). Dispensary owners should avoid using marijuana in the names of their stores, and be judicial about using it to brand their products. These actions, as well as the inevitable legalization and acceptance of cannabis across the nation, will go a long way toward snuffing out all serious usage of this outdated and inaccurate term.

Plus, if you’re like me, you’d agree that ANY effort to limit the number of times public officials drawl out their godawful, nasally pronunciation of “MARE-eh-wanna” is well worth it. Seriously, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, just tune in to any televised or radio debate about cannabis—the way Americans pronounce the word can be classified as aggravated assault on the human ear.

So yes—to respect the universal value of the plant, to deny the racists behind American cannabis prohibition their most effective legacy, and for the sake of our own precious ears, let’s just call it by a better name.

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