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It’s a little after 4:20 p.m. as the hazy smoke in your dimly-lit basement begins to reach up to the ceiling. The poorly rolled joint makes its way around the circle and back to you, diminishing in size each time. As you begin to focus a bit too hard on creating rings of smoke from your mouth, your neighbor in the circle says, “Hey, man, pass me that cannabis sativa.

It’s been known as pot, weed, grass, ganja, dope, reefer and mary jane; but no other word is more commonly used to refer to the drug cannabis as “marijuana.” Of Mexican-Spanish origin, the word “marijuana,” or “marihuana,” was replaced with American lexicon’s “cannabis” in the early 19th century.

Today, it has become a buzzword for politics and law enforcement. The United States’ history of federally policing the widely accepted, yet taboo, word is rooted in xenophobia and misinformation.

From 1910 to 1920, the United States saw tens of thousands of Mexicans immigrating to the southwest in the wake of the Mexican Civil War. The influx of immigration escalated anti-Mexican immigrant sentiment and a campaign of “reefer madness” among white Americans, most commonly by America’s resident xenophobe and the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger. Anslinger’s propaganda campaigns created racist narratives, like those who smoke marijuana are of an “inferior race” and are more likely to engage in sexual promiscuity and violence. By adopting the Spanish word “marijuana,” rather than the already widely-used “cannabis,” Anslinger and other prohibition activists of the early to mid-19th century were intentionally connecting the use of marijuana by brown and black bodies, to dangerous and fabricated side effects of the drug.

The recreational use of marijuana has been legalized in 11 states, and medical marijuana has been legalized by 33 states. Last summer, New York legislators voted to decriminalize marijuana possession. According to a 2018 report by Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics, the [legal] marijuana industry is projected to generate over $23 billion by 2022. As the number of states legalizing marijuana increases, the debate on marijuana’s racially-charged etymology becomes more and more prevalent. By adjusting our language, are we admitting to and reconciling with white America’s xenophobic past? Or does switching out “marijuana” for “cannabis” erase a problematic history and the relationships that we have created between drug use and racial profiling?

"Marijuana prohibition has historically targeted people of color and minorities and disproportionately affected them"
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Violet Cavendish, communications coordinator for The Marijuana Policy Project

“Marijuana prohibition has historically targeted people of color and minorities and disproportionately affected them,” said Violet Cavendish, communications coordinator for The Marijuana Policy Project. “But I think it’s important to acknowledge this and not completely erase the term marijuana, because then doing so erases the history behind it and it’s easier to move on without understanding that policies have been using this word to target minorities.”

Some people argue that even changing preferred weed-speak to “cannabis” offers up its own problems. Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus was the first to identify “cannabis sativa” in his 1753 classification. But the scientist also biologically classified the human race in his 1767 publication, Systema Naturae.

“He divided humanity into four racial subgroups and ranked them according to which he thought were better than others,” says Emily Dufton, author of Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America. “So, to assume that ‘cannabis’ is a preferable term because it doesn’t have racial overtones, I think, denies the fact that there’s this Swedish guy who actually has those exact same feelings.”

"I have my skepticism about really embracing the term 'cannabis' as opposed to anything else, because it feels so much like a marketing effort to me."
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Emily Dufton, author of "Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America"

Others argue that changing the terminology to “cannabis” isn’t scientifically correct. “Cannabis” or “cannabis sativa L.” refers to the entire plant, and it consists of different strains. One strain, hemp, refers to the non-psychoactive variety of the plant. Hemp is used to make commercial and industrial products like rope, clothing, shoes, food, paper, or natural pain relief. Marijuana refers to the psychoactive strain of cannabis that contains THC. In other words, it’s the strain that people smoke. The recent push to use “cannabis” instead of “marijuana” is often considered a capitalist ploy by certain companies that are using the legal marijuana industry for profit.

“We see that in the legal cannabis industry it’s still primarily white men who are gaining the most, financially, from this legal system,” says Dufton. “So, I have my skepticism about really embracing the term ‘cannabis’ as opposed to anything else, because it feels so much like a marketing effort to me.”

Marijuana has such a large presence in the legal system, in pop culture, and in history. Teens smoking in basements may not start referring to their joints as “cannabis sativa.” But a more widespread recognition of America’s complicated and xenophobic history with “marijuana” could allow the communities most affected by its policing to decide for themselves whether or not “marijuana” is a racist term.

Avatar for Meredith Clark

is a contributor to The NewsHouse.

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Avatar for Meredith Clark

is a Newhouse School graduate student and contributor to The NewsHouse.