The Racist Strain of 'Marijuana'

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You probably never called it “cannabis”: When you were growing up, you might have referred to it as “pot” or “weed” or “trees.” Whatever the name, the plant has become exponentially more mainstream since Colorado became the first state to pass laws allowing its recreational use in early 2014. Despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ mission to crush Obama-era legislation protecting states with cannabis use laws in place, in this young year alone, California’s adult use law went into effect January 1 and Vermont just became the first state to legalize through legislation.

A decade ago, the more official word for “cannabis,” the one your parents may have borrowed from the media, was “marijuana.” However, amid all this legalization chatter, many industry professionals have started avoiding “the M word” altogether, part of a rebrand to detach the herb from its racist and fear-mongering—not to mention unmarketable—roots.

The Mexican slang term “marihuana” was originally used in the 19th century to highlight the drug’s “exotic” quality, while simultaneously taking a jab at the Mexicans who first brought it into the United States for recreational use after the Mexican-American War. The use of “marihuana” rose in popularity in the early 1900s, eventually morphing into “marijuana.” The term made the plant sound scary and foreign, which fed into a growing racism and xenophobia against Mexicans moving to the States during the Great Depression. It also separated it from the otherwise accepted medicine, cannabis, used to treat depression and calm inflammations, among other maladies. (Queen Victoria used it to curb menstrual cramps.)


Anti-drug campaigners of the early 20th century deployed the phrase “marijuana menace” in their propaganda to describe an imagined onslaught of cannabis-related crime, which they were sure would be perpetuated by Mexicans settling in the United States, armed with the “dangerous” plant. In magazine ads and at movie theaters, they warned the general public about the tendency for “marihuana weed” to make smokers “loco.” Short propaganda films sometimes showed a Mexican man dressed in dark colors, violent from his marijuana cigarette, terrorizing a Western ranch. Prohibitionists would declare the drug had “roots in hell,” when really its roots were just in Mexico.

Among two of the most vocal prohibitionists were the first U.S Narcotics Commissioner Harry J. Anslinger and media mogul William Randolph Hearst. The two rallied against hemp (the non-psychoactive relative of cannabis) in favor of synthetic fibers like nylon and rayon, propelling the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which targeted non-white people. The act heavily taxed the plant and if that tax couldn’t be paid, those using it would be handed a prison sentence instead. These heavy taxes also pushed cannabis outside the medical realm for a spell, since no one could afford it. During the only Congressional hearing related to the act, Anslinger testified:

There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., 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.


Anslinger’s anti-cannabis, racist stance had always been out in the open; after all, he spearheaded the 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness, which introduced African Americans as criminals, drawing more parallels with the 1800s war against opium and associated anti-Chinese sentiments. Hearst’s objections could have been based in business rather than racism or xenophobia. His main concern was that hemp could replace paper, which would no doubt negatively affect his booming publishing business. Hearst not only funneled cash towards projects like Reefer Madness, he also ran egregious stories in his papers detailing the gruesome, violent effects cannabis yielded while vilifying people of color.


Over time, from the 1930s up until just a few years ago—and with repeated media use—“marijuana” was eventually neutralized to the go-to term for the herb. Ronald Reagan called “marijuana” “probably the most dangerous drug in the United States” in 1980. Thirty-three years later, Bill Clinton “never denied” that he “used marijuana.” But many say it’s due time for the plant to get back non-racist roots: the scientific name “cannabis.”

“We at Privateer decided that we were going to use the C word six years ago,” cannabis industry private equity firm Privateer Holdings’ CEO Brendan Kennedy told CBSN in the 2016 documentary Big Pot: The Commercial Takeover. “When we’re talking to media, media will use every other word. They’ll use the M word, the P word. Lots of other words. And they don’t use slang words when they talk about alcohol. You know, you don’t interview a CEO of an alcohol company and say, ‘So let’s talk about booze,’ or ‘Let’s talk about hooch.’ ‘Tell me about firewater.’”


Halifax councilor Shawn Cleary was a little more explicit about why “the M word” was marginalizing in the first place: The Canadian politician announced in October he’d no longer use the word “marijuana” because of its racist roots. “We need to actually have conversations, have dialogue, and talk about these things,” Cleary said. “These are teaching moments. They are opportunities for us to go and learn stuff and to find out more about the history of the world around us.”


The racism isn’t just the word: Cannabis continues to shut black people out of its highly lucrative “green rush,” while disproportionately affecting people of color in the criminal justice system. African Americans are almost four times more likely to be charged with cannabis-related crimes; meanwhile, the glaring whiteness of mainstream cannabis culture is impossible to ignore. Last summer, Washington state’s Department of Health erected a series of controversial anti-cannabis billboards aimed towards Hispanic youth, proclaiming, “We don’t need pot to have fun. We’re Hispanics… we’re cool by default.” It’s troubling to target the Latinx community as more likely to consume cannabis than other races; plus, it seems counterintuitive to insinuate a substance you’re rallying against is cool.

Although decriminalization efforts have been a promising step towards progress, prisons remain flooded by people incarcerated on non-violent charges related to cannabis, many of them people of color. And whether or not cannabis advocates actually care about the prison industrial complex, they know the racist terms like “marijuana” are bad for business. Enter the verbal makeover.


“Marijuana or weed or dope or whatever they want to characterize it is their attempt to lessen and denigrate the area,” cannabis icon Cheech Marin told me. Cannabis, he says, “is absolutely a rebranding.”

And the rebranded glossary goes far beyond “cannabis.” Many collectives no longer refer to people as “customers” but rather “guests” or “patients,” because “providing excellent customer service is the cornerstone of our business, and we want everyone to feel welcome,” says Elise McDonough, employee of Santa Cruz dispensary KindPeoples (and author of The Official High Times Cannabis Cookbook).


California’s law used the language “adult-use” instead of the “recreational” Oregon and Colorado favor. “With the word ‘recreational,’ to me at least, I think of a park, and I think of a little kid going down a slide,” Dina Browner, cannabis consultant and host of Top Shelf with Dr. Dina, says. “I wouldn’t think that they would have a margarita in their hand or a joint while they went down that slide.”

Conscientious word choice is key in making room for cannabis to boom, but more importantly, it brings a tiny bit of racial consciousness to an industry that for decades has shut out people of color. These folks with business stakes in cannabis abandoning “the M word” could be working towards finally restoring integrity in a historically racist industry—or it could just be a happy by-product in a massive rebranding for the herb. Only time, and legislation, will tell.

Beca is an Atlanta-based culture writer and editor.

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