Cannabis versus marijuana: What’s in a name?

There’s a long way to go when it comes to ridding reefer of its bad rep whatever you prefer to call it

Word cannabis on a dictionary.


As the pot business has gone legit, you may have noticed an alphabet soup of different terms for familiar things.

“Dispensaries” have become “retail cannabis shops.” “Edibles” are now “consumables.” And “pot,” “weed” and “marijuana” now increasingly go by the term “cannabis.”

As the prohibition era came to an end, it was time to put a fresh face on a very old plant. And everything recognizable to aficionados of days past has been replaced with clinical-sounding rebrands.

Industry types love the term “cannabis” because it offers a fresh slate to build weed’s brand. Social justice advocates love that it sheds racist connotations. Scientists love that everyone is using the technically correct term for the plant.  Even newly-formed interest groups and major cannabis retailers are foregoing the so-called “M-word.”

In 2018, prominent Bay Area chain Harborside Health Center announced that it was dropping the use of “marijuana.”

The chain said in a statement announcing that “Marijuana has come to be associated with the idea that cannabis is a dangerous and addictive intoxicant, not a holistic, herbal medicine. This stigma has played a big part in stymying cannabis legalization efforts.”

But there’s a long way to go when it comes to ridding reefer’s bad rep whatever you prefer to call it.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University say both “marijuana” and “cannabis” continue to be stigmatized. And negative characteristics – like “teenaged,” “white,” “irresponsible,” and “lazy” – associated with both terms.

Interestingly, the study notes that almost every U.S. state referred to the drug as “marijuana” (or “marihuana”) rather than “cannabis” in their official legal codes, until recently.

But Vanderbilt’s study suggests that the shift towards “cannabis” has not translated to more political support for legalization.

Some historians say that marijuana grew as a term because “the exotic-sounding word… appealed to the xenophobia of the time.”

Others like Isaac Campos trace the term back to the beginning of the 20th century. That’s when newspapers in the southern U.S. began picking up stories about marijuana from Mexico.

When it comes to the shifting perceptions on weed, Vanderbilt’s findings give credence to a sense of fatigue.

There are definitely reasons (on both sides) to consider your use of the word carefully. Leaving it in the past will do little to improve the public’s perception.

“Changing the hearts and minds of the public has always been about substance, not terminology,” says NORML deputy director Paul Armentano.

But if you do need a new term to refer to your sticky icky, the Canadian government can help. It released a list of slang terms for pot in 2018. Included on the list: errl, boom, gangster, doobie, and my fave, dank krippy. 

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