NORML’s “Radical” Russ Belville shares his thoughts on choosing the right word when discussing our favorite plant.
By Russ Belville
I received a letter from a NORML member in Arizona who had an “Important Suggestion”:
I would still encourage all of you at national NORML to think about the word pot. I don't think you need to police anybody about the words they use, simply choose not to use this word in the public realm.
I’ve actually thought about this quite a bit. I work in radio and blogging, so word choice is an important thing to me. I always try to use the correct word for the correct context.
While this is by no means any official NORML style guide, here are some things I’ve considered when writing and speaking:
Cannabis – This is the plant we are fighting to liberate. When I’m writing in medical and scientific contexts, I use this word. When I talk about using it medically or personally, I try to use this word. If I’m on the fence about whether to use marijuana or cannabis, tie goes to the plant. However…
Marijuana – We are the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. How do I reconcile that? Do I go the “NAACP route?” Nobody would call anyone “colored people” anymore, right? But the acronym is so recognizable you can’t change it and it does remind you of the struggles of the past.
Well, I figure this: what we are working to reform actually are marijuana laws. The word used in statute is marijuana (sometimes marihuana) even if sometimes it is just in the title, while Cannabis sativa L. is used in the actual statutory definitions. So if the story is about criminal justice, I’ll often use the word marijuana, because that is what the person was charged with (e.g. “possession of marijuana”).
But is marijuana racist? Yes and no. The word itself, “marihuana,” is merely a Mexican slang term for the dried flowers of the cannabis plant used for recreational smoking. That makes marijuana no more racist a word in Spanish than mota or cañamo are. The racism underlying marijuana was in the intent of Harry J. Anslinger and William Randolph Hearst to use that scary-sounding Mexican word to demonize the brown-skinned people who were smoking what Americans knew commonly as hemp.
Pot – I don’t like pot, but my colleague Keith Stroup smokes pot and he “likes it a lot.” I don’t dislike it out of offense; merely out of silliness. Why would you call cannabis “pot?” Because it grows in a pot? I’m sure somebody has Wikipedia’d this already, but really, I don’t care. It just sounds silly. Let’s smoke pot. Meh.
But here’s where the “however” and the “but” factor in. You also have to consider getting the message out to the greatest number of eyeballs. In the world of Google searches, marijuana kicks cannabis’s butt. Potdoes too, and it will fit better in a headline or a tweet than eight-letter cannabis and nine-letter marijuana. So for headlines in blog posts and titles of seminars and speeches, I will use the word marijuana. When it draws the reader to the story, I can overwhelm them with all the cannabis I can muster. Also, if pot presents an opportunity for some alliteration to set a silly tone, I’ll use it, but pretty sparingly. Which brings me to…
Pothead and Stoner – Some of us want to bury these words in the same linguistic politically correct grave as a certain six-letter word that begins with “n” (no, I won’t say “the n-word”; what are we, kindergarteners?). Pothead seems more offensive to me, just because I don’t like pot.
But you really can’t bury these words because they do describe a portion of our culture. I think the distinction is that I’m a pothead – I’m all about cannabis, can tell you everything about it, medically, scientifically, historically, industrially, legally, etc. – and I smoke a buckets of weed*. Slater in Dazed & Confused is a pothead.
Stoners, on the other hand, just smoke buckets of weed. They like being high, not necessarily fighting for the right to do so. (And that’s not a moral judgment, either. Really, why should they fight too hard for something they’re already doing?) Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a stoner.
When I asked my audience about those two words, they seemed to think it was OK if we were saying it to each other, but it was offensive if they were saying it to us. In that respect, perhaps pothead and stoner do resemble a certain six-letter word that begins with the letter “n”.
Lately I’ve come to calling my audience tokers. I think that’s a fair descriptor of someone who lives an average ordinary life, works hard, raises a family, oh, and by the way, might puff on a joint now and then. Cannabis use doesn’t really define them personally, but they are very cognizant of how it defines them socially if anyone outside their circle were to find out. Besides, it brings to mind that Steve Miller song, which can only make people mellow and happy. I think that tokers, though, should win out, because it fits well into a linguistic scheme for the currently legal drugs. Smokers, Drinkers and Tokers, oh my!
For descriptions of us, I prefer cannabis consumers, but it is awfully stuffy. I’m not really fond of recreational users because user reminds me of heroin or computer network security and recreational makes it sound like smoking a joint requires a tent or an RV or something. Social user is a little better, it brings up connotations of social drinker, so there’s something to that (“I’m just a social drinker: not an alcoholic” :: “I’m just a social user: not a stoner” for you SAT fans). People engaged in the medicinal use of cannabis are following medical marijuana laws. People following those laws are medical marijuana patients (I’m a medical marijuana caregiverunder the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act, not the Oregon Medical Cannabis Act,) but they use medical cannabis.
So to you, my fellow toker, while it is important to consider the words we use, don’t let political correctness blind you from the richness of language we have to get our message across. There is a context for every description of cannabis and its users and used correctly they can better express our views to a broader audience. Let us butcher ol’ Bill Shakespeare (rumored to be a toker, too) and remember:
*Weed, herb, smoke, grass, gage, ganja, muggles, tea, 420, and many more, all so much better than pot. They aren’t for news writing, but in writing descriptive prose for a cannabis-friendly audience. If I just told you I smoked a blunt with a celebrity, you’d think Snoop Dogg. If I said I smoked some grass with a celebrity, you’d think Willie Nelson. By the way, I have not smoked with either gentleman, but if Willie or Snoop happen to be reading this, it would be this writer’s honor to engage you in some fine Oregon hospitality!
“Radical” Russ Belville is NORML’s Outreach coordinator and host of NORML SHOW LIVE, streaming weekdays at 4pm Pacific at live.norml.org. The archived podcasts of every show are available at The NORML Stash Blog at stash.norml.org.