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“Marijuana” Is Not a Racist Word

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“Marijuana” Is Not a Racist Word

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“We actually prefer the term ‘cannabis.’ ‘Marijuana’ is a racist Mexican slang term.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some variation of that statement from well-meaning people in the drug reform movement. But not only is that claim invalid, it’s rhetorically dangerous to use.

First, the validity question, “is marihuana a racist Mexican slang term?” The origins of the term marihuana are shrouded in mystery. In 2013, NPR’s Code Switch program traced many of the popular origin stories:

One theory holds that Chinese immigrants to western Mexico lent the plant its name; a theoretical combination of syllables that could plausibly have referred to the plant in Chinese (ma ren hua) might have just become Spanishized into “marijuana.” Or perhaps it came from a colloquial Spanish way of saying “Chinese oregano” — mejorana (chino). Or maybe Angolan slaves brought to Brazil by the Portuguese carried with them the Bantu word for cannabis: ma-kaña. Maybe the term simply originated in South America itself, as a portmanteau of the Spanish girl’s names Maria and Juana.

So marihuana might not even be Mexican Spanish – it could be Chinese or Bantu in origin. But is marihuana racist?

It is true that marihuana/marijuana became a term popularized by racists. One need only review the words of Harry J. Anslinger and the newspapers of the time to read disgusting quotes like “…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races” and headlines like “KILLS SIX IN A HOSPITAL.; Mexican, Crazed by Marihuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife”. Nobody can deny marijuana was used instead of cannabis to take advantage of anti-Mexican racism and fool the cannabis-using public.

But just because racists used a term for racist purposes that doesn’t make the term racist per se. Language evolves and context matters. The term gay can be pejorative (e.g. “that’s so gay”) but can also be used properly (e.g. “the gay rights movement”) depending on context. It’s pejorative to call people Orientals or homosexuals, but there are still Oriental foods and homosexual acts.

Marijuana has evolved as a term to mean “the dried flowering tops of female cannabis plants prepared for smoking.” As such, in some contexts marijuana is a more accurate term than cannabis, as all marijuana is cannabis, but not all cannabis is marijuana. You can say that you’re smoking cannabis, drinking ethanol, and eating bovine, but saying you’re smoking marijuana, drinking wine, and eating steak would be more precise.

My friend Joy Beckerman from Hemp Ace International likes to say that cannabis is a plant that comes in an industrial version called hemp and a medicinal version called marijuana. If we strike marijuana from our vocabulary, how do we easily distinguish between industrial and psychoactive cannabis?

Some will present an argument against using marijuana on the basis of framing, which are the associations and feelings we have surrounding the context of a concept. For instance, elephant just doesn’t conjure “large mammal with a trunk” in your mind; it also may conjure memory, circus, Republicans, Dumbo, Africa, peanuts and many other concepts.

The argument, then, is that marijuana conjures up so many negative frames to some people (Cheech & Chong, munchies, Vietnam, hippies, liberals) that we’re better off using cannabis, which in the United States won’t carry that baggage.

Unfortunately, militantly insisting on using cannabis over marijuana presents its own set of rhetorical dangers.

Generally I’m a proponent of these framing arguments. It’s why I prefer the term personal use to recreational use, or why I prefer marijuana consumer to marijuana user. Recreational connotes discretionary frivolity (recreational vehicle, recreational area) and user connotes a slavishly dedicated relationship to an object that forms an identity (Linux user, Rogaine user).

However, there comes a point where re-framing a concept, especially a well-known one, becomes rhetorically counter-productive. I call it “The Fig Leaf Effect”, after the Biblical Adam & Eve covering their shameful nudity with fig leaves.

The Fig Leaf Effect happens when you push so hard to re-frame a well-entrenched concept that you appear to be embarrassed or ashamed of that concept. Think of the janitor who insists on being called a “custodial sanitation engineer” or referring to a drug’s overdose risk as “potential fatal episodes have been known to occur.” When you Fig Leaf, you make your audience wonder what it is you’re trying to hide – “what’s so bad about marijuana that this guy keeps calling it cannabis?”

Finally, consider how it sounds to your audience when they hear “We actually prefer the term ‘cannabis.’ ‘Marijuana’ is a racist Mexican slang term.” If they’ve been used to hearing and saying marijuana, you’ve just implied that they’re complicit in racism, and nobody likes to be called a racist. You’ve also come off as pretentious as someone who says their dog is more properly referred to as Canis lupus familiaris.

I’m not saying you need to start using the term marijuana if it makes you uncomfortable. It’s the militant insistence that others not use the term marijuana that causes the problem. Personally, when I’m referring to that which I smoke or the laws concerning that which I smoke, I refer to marijuana. If the discussion concerns cultivation of the plant that produces that which I smoke, I refer to cannabis. As in “We need to end cannabis prohibition and reform marijuana laws so I can grow cannabis and smoke marijuana.”

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3 Comments

Russ, you make an important distinction that “marihuana” was not itself a racist word, but that it was popularized by racists like Anslinger and Hearst. Of course, the reason they chose to re-brand “Indian hemp” as “marihuana” was because the new word’s Spanish sound made it seem foreign–and therefore somewhat suspicious, alien, and implicitly sinister, to the average ethnocentric white Americans, especially white American politicians (99.5% of all 1930’s American lawmakers were white.) Since xenophobia or fear of foreigners commonly accompanies racist or ethnocentric prejudices, using this mysterious neologism was a deliberate ploy to demonize what had previously been a commonplace domesticated crop. (Also calling it a “weed” instead of a cultivated plant worked to the same purpose of re-branding as a deliberate tactic of confusion and misdirection.)
The thing is, the tactic succeeded as well as any similar scheme ever has. The very sound or sight of the word “marijuana” is so indelibly fraught with the connotations of criminality and vice–after 80 years of incessant reefer madness–that it has the effect of freezing the brains and short-circuiting the rationality of the average member of the public or a legislature.
I don’t prefer “cannabis,” although I wouldn’t mind “eradicating marijuana,” or reducing it to a secondary status along with other slang synonyms. What we’re really talking about is hemp–the English word which is linguistically derived from the ancestral Greek/Latin “kannabis,” through intermediate stages of vowel and consonant shifts and some natural phoinetic elisions. Anslinger gave the game away by insisting that “hemp contains the drug marihuana” (see “Hemp for Victory” film’s reproduction of Bur. of Narc. “Producer of Marihuana” permit for W.W. II hemp farmers.)
If you re-read Jack Herer’s “Emperor,” you’ll see this is how Jack understood the semantics of “marijuana.” Ironically, our contemporary “drug-free hemp” profiteers would never have been in their line of business if not for Jack Herer, but they have actually “done an Anslinger” in reverse by getting too many people to believe that “hemp” is something separate from”marijuana.” Total bullshit. Marijuana is just smokable hemp, or pyschoactive strains of hemp, as you may prefer. But phylogenetically, it’s hemp: Cannabis sativa, indica, ruderalis.
Words matter. I think it makes sense for us and not our foes to frame the issues of debate and to choose the terminology we wish to deploy. Break the evil spell cast by Anslinger and Hearst. Leave marijuana back in the 20th century, and speak of this plant in terms of our own preference. For instance, what’s wrong with “ganja”? Ganja was listed in the Oxford English Dictionary as long ago as the 1930’s—when, it should be noted, “marihuana” under any spelling was NOT. Or, in the Queen’s English, the precise word is simply “hemp.”
There was a court case in San Marcos, Texas, in the 1990’s where the judge at the prosecutor’s urging issued a ruling that the word “hemp” could not be uttered in his courtroom by defendants who were charged with “marijuana” crimes because they had staged a civil disobedience demonstration to publicize what they believed to be the fact that so-called marijuana was outlawed in order to suppress hemp. [That was Jack Herer’s thesis; it may contain more than a kernel of historical truth, too!] The judge censored the syllable “hemp” from being heard . . . and that to me demonstrates that our best choice to describe our sacrament is precisely just good old “hemp.”

Thanks for the comment. But there are also practical reasons why dropping “marijuana” is problematic in the USA:

By a factor of about 6-to-1, “marijuana” outperforms “cannabis” in the online search engine world.

Support for legalizing “marijuana” is now between 60 – 64 percent. It’s hard to say that number would be higher if we’d been saying “cannabis” for five decades. I’d bet the support would go down in a poll using “cannabis” as some who’d support legalizing “marijuana” might not know what “cannabis” is and then answer with a “don’t know.”

I just can’t get onboard with the “marijuana is racist” political correctness, because it diminishes real racism and real racist epithets. Nobody today is saying “marijuana” to frighten the white people about the crazed Mexicans. Where in 1938, probably more people know what “cannabis” is than “marijuana,” in 2018, the situation is reversed.

If Anslinger saying “marijuana” means we can’t, then we have to ban the word “reefer,” too. If the US had seen an influx of Jamaican immigrants rather than Mexicans, would we be banning “ganja” as a racist term?

Two corrections to my earlier comment: 1. The word “phonetic” would have looked better if it had been properly spelled.
2. The reference to the USDA’s film “Hemp for Victory” mentioned the “Producer of Marihuana” permit issued to hemp growers–and believe me, these WERE industrial varieties of hemp they were planting–but the the actual Narcotics Bureau “warning” language which I referenced appeared elsewhere, not in the same stilled frame where the image of the permit was shown.

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