The M word: why some people consider “marijuana” offensive

Using the word “marijuana” is inherently racist. Then again, maybe it isn’t. It really depends on who you ask


A 1915 newspaper warns of the curse of "deadly marihuana" in Mexico. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress


Using the word marijuana is inherently racist.

Then again, maybe it isn’t. It really depends on who you ask.

Like the plant to which it refers, the word marijuana has a fraught history, and it remains controversial today. Before we dive into the current debate, however, let’s take a look at the word’s origins.

The etymology of marijuana

The fact is, no one is quite sure where the word marijuana came from in the first place. It originated in Mexican Spanish—once-common variants included marihuana and mariguana—but its precise etymology remains a mystery.

Maybe it came from the Nahuatl word mallihuan (meaning “prisoner”). Perhaps it comes from the Chinese term ma ren hua (or “hemp seed flower”), which is purported to have its roots in a semitic word that also gave us the Spanish word mejorana. Mejorana, incidentally, refers not to cannabis, but to the herb marjoram—which many Mexicans know as “Chinese oregano”.

Enter Harry Anslinger

The point at which things got problematic was when marijuana gained currency in English in the 1930s. In his war on cannabis, Harry Anslinger—commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962—made extensive use of the M word.

Previously, Anslinger worked for the Bureau of Prohibition. At that time, he was notably of the opinion that cannabis was harmless. When alcohol prohibition in the U.S. ended, however, Anslinger supposedly saw that he could build a career demonizing the “deadly, dreadful poison”.

And demonize it he did, penning such assertions as “Marihuana is a short cut to the insane asylum. Smoke marihuana cigarettes for a month and what was once your brain will be nothing but a storehouse of horrid specters.”

This was the gospel according to Harry. His campaign was aided in no small part by the scandal-mongering newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. It was no accident that these powerful white men chose the M word when referring to cannabis. Writing for Splinter in 2018, Beca Grimm asserted “The term made the plant sound scary and foreign, which fed into a growing racism and xenophobia against Mexicans moving to the States during the Great Depression.”

There’s no question that Anslinger was publicly, unapologetically racist. Consider this oft-cited quote attributed to him:

There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.

Language defines ideas

With this history in mind, it’s little wonder that so many #woke folks today avoid using the word marijuana in any context.

The California dispensary Harborside, for example—one of the oldest and largest cannabis retailers in the world—prefers the word cannabis.

“Language is important because it defines our ideas,” reads a statement on the Harborside website. “Words have a power that transcends their formal meaning. When we change words, we can also change the thoughts that underlie them. By changing the words we use to describe cannabis and herbal medicine, we can help our fellow citizens understand the truth about it, and see through the decades of propaganda.”

Higher Etiquette author Lizzie Post told Vox that she gained insight into the controversy while writing her book:

 I learned a lot about the history of the word ‘marijuana’. Just the fact that people have differing views on whether that’s an okay word or not. I spoke to a lot of people who thought it wasn’t an okay word, and then other people who wanted to reclaim it and the culture it comes from. You’re getting these disparate perspectives on individual aspects. That’s one thing that changed for me. I bristle when I hear that word used in government or science. I feel like it’d be better to use the more scientific or Latin terminology. The big thing was how much people love this plant and want to be respected around using it.

Post said that, although she still says “weed” and “pot” in conversation, she uses cannabis when speaking publicly. Marijuana is evidently a no-no.

In defense of “marijuana”

There are those, however, who do advocate keeping the M word alive. We should use it, they say, not in ignorance of its fraught history, but because of it. Santiago Guerra is a professor of Southwest Studies at Colorado College. In 2018, he told the Verge: “The term should continue to be used so that people have to be reminded about this problematic history and the problematic relationship we have with this plant and the type of relationships that it’s created between different populations.”

Adolfo Gonzalez. Photo by CannaReps.

Adolfo Gonzalez takes that sentiment a step further. Gonzalez is a cofounder of the Vancouver-based educational organization CannaReps. A Mexican of European descent, Gonzalez told CannCentral that suppressing the use of the word marijuana is “a whitewashing of our culture”.

In Gonzalez’s view, attempting to erase the terms that Mexicans themselves use is tantamount to muzzling the free expression of Latino culture.

“We call it mota, we call it marijuana, we call it yerba—that’s my nickname down there, ‘Yerba Mala’—and all of these are words that are culturally specific to us,” he said in a recent telephone interview.

“We’ve got people who have negative associations with these terminologies because the government has been using them in a very negative way for a long time,” Gonzalez explained. “And because there are associations with low-class street culture—which again is referent to Latino culture. And that really ties into the whole grain of the stigma. So it’s funny to me when people say, ‘Let’s fight the stigma by unknowingly reinforcing the stigma, because we come from such a whitewashed culture, where we have very little understanding of other cultures, and very little desire to understand other cultures.'”

So there you have it: using the word marijuana is inherently racist. Or maybe it isn’t. This debate is clearly far from over. The M word comes with a lot of baggage, much of it negative. If you choose to use it, the least you can do is educate yourself about its problematic history.

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