Cannabis is not only a plant; it is also an elegant botanical compound. Cannabinoids are naturally occurring compounds in the cannabis plant with many beneficial therapeutic applications. The cannabis plant is also the source of fiber and seeds that have tremendous economic value as raw materials for industrial use, food and personal health products.
Few, if any, readers of High Times would disagree with that statement—though many would elaborate on these claims in different ways, emphasizing one or another of the qualities and characteristics of the cannabis plant and its value to themselves and society.
Society is beginning to understand and appreciate the cannabis plant after a long period of misunderstanding and confusion, a period generally referred to as prohibition and characterized by general and purposeful hysteria. This period is also characterized by a great deal of misinformation, including misinformation about the name of the plant itself.
There are a lot of slang terms for cannabis. Some are hip, some are pejorative and some are downright amusing.
“Pot” is one of the most popular, historically, and, along with “weed,” one of the more widely used and well-known.
But the term “marijuana,” given its history and the nature of prohibition, is downright nasty. Marijuana is what prohibition supporters called cannabis as they sought to demonize its use and criminalize its consumers.
What is marijuana?
According to H.L. Mencken there are no known examples of the use of this word prior to 1894. It became identified as the “devil’s weed” by early supporters of prohibition, and many Americans don’t know any other name for the cannabis plant.
The Spanish word “marijhuana” was adopted to reinforce the connection between the “devil’s weed” and Mexican immigrants who, allegedly, first introduced it to American society. Being anti-marijuana was also a way to be anti-immigrant. (Note: In the early 1970s, the Nixon Administration adopted a policy of standardizing the spelling of the word as “marijuana.”)
However, the cannabis plant was familiar to Americans for over 100 years prior to this, popularly known as “hemp.”
In 1776, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense—making a case in favor of the fight for American independence from Great Britain—argues that among other resources necessary for a successful military conflict, “Hemp flourishes even to rankness, so that we need not want cordage.”
As one of the major crops in early 19th Century, Mencken notes, it was responsible for Kentucky being known as the “Hemp State.”
The linguistic clash over the cannabis plant was on display when Congress crafted and passed the “Marihuana Tax Act of 1937,” the first piece of federal legislation prohibiting marijuana.
As defined by the act, “Marihuana means all parts of the plant Cannabis sativa L. . . . but shall not include the mature stalks of such plant, oil and cake made from the seeds of such plant” or other products of the plant utilized by the hemp industry in America. Indeed, the hearings on the act included substantial testimony from hemp industry farmers about their concerns over the cultivation of cannabis to produce products such as fiber and seed.
Testifying on July 12, 1937 before the Senate Finance Subcommittee, Clinton M. Hester, the assistant attorney general counsel for the Treasury Department, explained that the purpose of the legislation was to “raise revenue by imposing occupational and transfer taxes upon dealings in marihuana and to discourage the widespread use of the drug by smokers and drug addicts.”
Hester told the Senators that “the flowering tops, leaves, and seeds of the hemp plant contain a dangerous drug known as marijuana.” He also acknowledged that “the plant also has many industrial uses.” However, “under the influence of this drug, the will is destroyed and all power of directing and controlling thought is lost.”
(By the way, according to Hester, marihuana cigarettes sold for 25 cents each in 1937!)
Earlier that year, at a May 4th hearing before the Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives, Dr. William C. Woodward, the legislative counsel for the American Medical Association, opposed this legislation.
According to Dr. Woodward:
“There is nothing in the medicinal use of Cannabis that has any relation to Cannabis addiction. I use the word “Cannabis” in preference to the word “marihuana,” because cannabis is the correct term for describing the plant and its products. The term ‘marijhuana’ is a mongrel word that crept into this country over the Mexican border and has no general meaning, except as it relates to the use of Cannabis preparations for smoking . . . In other words, marihuana is not the correct term.”
Most Americans, including supporters of legalization, do not know this history.
While many Americans know that marijuana is a name for the cannabis plant and even know a little bit about hemp and its history, they don’t know why these three terms are all part of the American language.
Frankly, the argument for legalization is best advanced using the terminology that is most familiar to the public. It is most important, these days, to change the laws.
Changing the terminology, though, should be considered another important obligation for the advocates and supporters of legalization.
Cannabis is an elegant botanical compound. Cannabis rules: Call things by their right name. It’s a matter of respect. And history.