One of the recurring debates I get into online is with people who insist that I stop using the word “marijuana” to describe cannabis. It’s offensive, some will tell me, a Spanish slang term used to by yellow journalists to capitalize on anti-Mexican racism[i] by deceiving the American people into accepting prohibition of what they knew as cannabis or hemp. A few dedicated souls even call it “the neener-neener word” or “cannabis’ slave name,” unashamedly equating a slang term for a plant with the brutal centuries-long American enslavement of Africans and the racial epithet used to degrade, demonize and dehumanize those human beings.
Sorry, folks, plants aren’t sentient. They don’t understand language. They don’t suffer discrimination. They cannot be offended. Comparing “marijuana” to racial and ethnic slurs, though, is something very offensive to the humans who understand language and suffered because of those slurs.
Yes, cannabis sativa L. is the proper scientific name for the plant. But that doesn’t make other terms for it offensive or wrong. In casual conversation, you wouldn’t complain that your evening intake of seared ground bovine flesh and fermented hop ethanol beverage will increase your abdominal adipose tissue—you’d complain your dinner of a cheeseburger and a beer will give you love handles. There’s nothing wrong with common language; in fact, most times it facilitates better communication and understanding.
“Marijuana” is a slang term, no doubt, but it’s no more offensive than any others for “cannabis.” “Marijuana” in some contexts is more accurate than “cannabis,” since the latter refers to the entire plant from root ball to leaf-tip, and the former refers to the dried seedless flowering tops of cannabis plants prepared for smoking or vaporization. I plant cannabis so I may harvest marijuana.
“Marijuana” is also the U.S. English term for “cannabis” like “lorry” is the UK English term for “truck.” Its origin may be Spanish slang used by some to demonize and obfuscate, but that meaning and use has changed over decades.
All around the world, different cultures and eras have had their own common terms for cannabis sativa L. In South Africa, it’s known as “dagga.” In the Caribbean, it’s called “ganja.” In 1930s Harlem, it was called “jive/reefer/tea.” In 1960s San Francisco, it was called “grass/pot/weed.” In 1990s Compton, it was called “chronic/dank/kush.”
Imagine an alternate universe, where fear of Mexican immigrants wasn’t used to propagandize early 20th century prohibition, but rather fear of Jamaican immigrants. Instead of using “marijuana” to frighten and confuse Americans, Harry J. Anslinger and William Randolph Hearst used “ganja” for the same purpose. Would the “Just Say Cannabis” people be chiding us for calling it “ganja”? Would they tell Jamaicans they’re using a “racist” word? If they’re logically consistent, they’d have to.
Aside from the few who outrageously equate “marijuana” to racial slurs, the rest of the “Just Say Cannabis” crowd likes to taunt me with one of my favorite subjects of study—neuro-linguistic framing. That’s the concept of explaining how language evokes not just the plain definitions of words we use, but also the contexts and associations of that word. The classic example George Lakoff gives is “elephant.” Sure, that means “African or Asian pachyderm,” the actual mammal called “elephant.” But it also evokes “huge,” “memory,” “Republicans,” “circus” and other associations.
The “Just Say Cannabis” framing argument is that “marijuana,” having been used as a word to denigrate cannabis, is loaded with negative associations, such as “stoners,” “hippies,” “anti-authority,” “lazy,” “drug abuse,” and so forth. If we say “cannabis,” we avoid negative connotations, which will improve chances for reform, they counsel me.
So how did we manage to pass 25 medical “marijuana” laws and legalize “marijuana” in four states? How is it that majorities now understand “marijuana” is safer than alcohol? I guess we can’t know whether those would’ve happened faster if we had been calling it “cannabis” since 1970, but it seems to me that reform is getting along quite well, with five more “marijuana” legalizations and four more medical “marijuana” initiatives on the ballot.
The problem with the framing angle is that as few people know what “cannabis” means as know what “pachyderm” means. If they’re too embarrassed to ask you what “cannabis” is, you’ve just wasted your messaging on “cannabis” legalization. If they do ask, you have to tell them that “cannabis” is the proper term for “marijuana.” Now, you’ve just activated the “marijuana” frames anyway, and you’ve added a bit of condescension toward your audience by pedantically insinuating they’re tasteless rubes who use offensive slang.
There’s also a concept I call “fig-leafing” at work. That’s when you euphemize something you find shameful or provocative to disguise it from others. Think of the “janitor” who insists he’s a “custodial sanitation engineer” or the CEO firing him in a round of “human resources reductions.” There is no shame in being a “janitor” until the speaker’s fancy-sounding euphemism implies there is. The janitor’s termination feels more demoralizing by trying to euphemize the humanity from it.
For American audiences who by 10-to-1 margins know the topic as “marijuana,” insisting they re-brand it as “cannabis” feels like a con is being pulled on them. Ironically, they sense that you’re doing what Anslinger and Hearst did so long ago: changing the name of a popularly-known herb in order to obfuscate public policy debates on it in your favor.
[i] They mean “nativism” or “nationalism” here; Mexican isn’t a race.