Weed by any other name would smell as sweet…or skunky…or fruity. There are hundreds of strains of cannabis and seemingly just as many nicknames for those sticky buds. Pot, dope, reefer, Mary Jane, grass, ganja, and herb are among the most common but the term “marijuana” has been up for debate recently.
In the 1930s, Harry J. Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN, now the DEA), spearheaded the cannabis prohibition effort by drafting the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act. This officially outlawed the sale and possession of cannabis for recreational use.
Anslinger also promoted xenophobic and racist attitudes towards Mexicans and other ethnic groups, and it is hypothesized that adopting the term “marihuana” would easily link pot hysteria to foreign cultures. Moses Baca was the first person to be arrested under the new law, and as a young Mexican-American man, he perfectly fit the profile of who the tax act was targeting (he had a quarter ounce of weed stashed in his drawer at home).
While Anslinger was an undeniable racist, and likely used an exotic-sounding word like marijuana to fuel his fear-mongering agenda, Chris Bennett, a cannabis historian, is wary of saying that marijuana is a racist term.
“In Mexico and other South American countries, the term was used for quite some time, and still is,” says Bennett.
He points to the Lecciones de farmacología, Volume 1, where the word “marihuana” was printed in 1853, well before Anslinger appropriated it for propaganda.
“Marijuana, as much as it is a name for cannabis, is a slang term. If you’re talking about something scientifically or policy-wise, cannabis is a much more appropriate term.”
Comparatively, “cannabis” is a Latin word, whose etymology is tied to Proto-Indo-European language, and, according to Bennett is the “oldest form of root words that there is.”
Cannabis has an ever-evolving story from its legality to its nomenclature, which will no doubt continue until we’re all calling it cosmic cabbage, as we puff uninhibitedly on Mars.