The term “marijuana,” given its history and the nature of prohibition, is downright racist. I was surprised to learn why.
V. Carranza (1859-1920)
Marijuana is what prohibition supporters called cannabis as they sought to demonize its use and criminalize its consumers. Prior to that, usage of the word “cannabis” simply referred to the plant that was widely sold in U.S. pharmacies to treat insomnia, migraines and rheumatism; it’s therapeutic properties studied and hundreds of articles published in scientific journals. There is no known reference to the word marijuana/mariguana/marihuana prior to 1894, according to H.L. Mencken. So, what changed? How was it that cannabis was medicinal, but marijuana was “the devil’s weed”?
The politics of hate.
Marijuana 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. War refugees and political exiles of the Mexican Revolution (1910 – 1920) fled to the United States to escape its violence, purportedly taking with them their popular form of intoxication, what they termed “mariguana.” Upon arrival, they encountered anti-immigrant fears throughout the Southwest — prejudices that intensified after the Great Depression. This bigotry played a key role in instituting the first marijuana laws — aimed at placing social controls on the immigrant population. Being anti-marijuana was also a way to be anti-immigrant. It’s been a political football ever since (I will write about this at length later and draw parallels to Nixon, the civil rights movement, and the War on Drugs).
In 1937, Dr. William C. Woodward, the legislative counsel for the American Medical Association, opposed legislation 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.” He testified:
“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.”
I admit that I still use the “M” word from time to time — it’s ubiquitous, it’s nice to swap out for cannabis when I’ve used it 5 times in a paragraph, but I’ll try to be less lazy about it and more aware of its origins.