“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 Spanish-ized 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 girls' 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 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 is the associations and feelings we have surrounding the context of a concept. For instance, elephant doesn’t just 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.”
(Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia)