Sadly, the Attack Continues Today, Masked by New Arguments
The Misinformation About the Word Marijuana
There is much misinformation still believed about cannabis. This includes myths like cannabis being a gateway drug, myths that it’s deadly, and even myths about the origins of the word marijuana.
It’s true that prohibition began as a movement rooted in racism and it continues to be racist today. Because of this, there are renewed calls to banish the word “marijuana”. Some cite the negative stereotype associated with this word, while others claim the word has racist roots. BUT, what most people don’t realize is that the attack on the word “marijuana” is deeply rooted in white supremacy.
We can easily illustrate the origin of this argument because it’s officially documented in our US governmental records.
The Fight Against the Word Marijuana is Rooted in White Supremacy
The Attack on the Word Marijuana Originates to the 1937 Congressional Hearings
Most people think the fight against the word marijuana is a modern-day argument, but the truth is, the argument to stop using the word marijuana, and instead only use the word cannabis, began in 1937 and is well-documented.
Let’s keep in mind the country was even more blatantly racist than it is today. [For reference: This was decades before segregation ended. Blacks (and women) were only granted the right to vote in 1920 (a right that wouldn’t be legally protected until 1965). Other immigrants weren’t granted the right to vote until 1943 with the passage of the Magnuson Act.]
So government documented racism is not shocking.
During the 1937 congressional hearings, Doctor Woodward, representing the American Medical Association, stated, “The term ‘marihuana’ is a mongrel word that has crept into this country over the Mexican border.”
“a mongrel of a word”
This was pure racism. The position of anti-prohibitionists was racist. It’s not surprising, society was horrifically racist at the time.
Because of this, pro-cannabis doctors who wanted cannabis to remain a legally regulated medication wanted only the word “cannabis” used to describe the plant.
The American Medical Association was Pro-Cannabis?
Yes. In 1937, the American Medical Association was pro-cannabis and against cannabis prohibition.
Before 1937, cannabis was a common medication. A variety of cannabis tinctures were available at the local pharmacy. Doctors routinely encouraged use and the American Medical Associaton wanted cannabis to remain available.
But they DID NOT want it called “marijuana”.
“Cannabis” Derives from Latin. “Marijuana” Derives from Nahuatl.
Racist people who wanted the plant to remain legal, insisted only the word “cannabis” be used. Cannabis is derived from Latin. Marijuana is derived from Nahuatl (the language of the indigenous people formerly residing in what is now Mexico).
While cannabis tinctures as medicine were common in the early US, the practice of smoking of dried cannabis flowers came directly from Mexico where they called it “marijuana”. Smoking marijuana became more popular socially during alcohol prohibition (1920-1933).
Mexican immigrants brought many words to the English language – words like avocado, chili, coyote, and marijuana are some of the few remnants of the Nahuatl culture brought to the US by immigrants from Mexico.
I asked Claudio Lomnitz, Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University in the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures, via email about the term. He told me, “That is how marihuana has always been known in Mexico, and there is no racist or pejorative undertone or overtone in the use of the term in Mexico or in Spanish generally.”
However, in the 1930’s, anti-prohibitionists felt associating the plant with the Mexican culture was a bad image. This was colonialism and white supremacy.
Anslinger was Not So Bright
It’s been argued, the Papa of Prohibition, Henry Anslinger, intentionally used the word marijuana instead of the word cannabis, to play on the fears of racist society. But this theory gives Anslinger way more credit than he deserves.
Anslinger didn’t call it “marijuana” to be sly–he wasn’t that smart– he called it marijuana because he didn’t know it was the same plant as cannabis. This became clear in the fury of birdseed industry who only discovered “cannabis” and “marijuana” were the same plant days before the congressional hearings to outlaw it.
Some cite the spelling differences of “marihuana” and “marijuana” as evidence of racist intent, but the truth is, the illiteracy rates of the 1930’s were exceedingly high. Even the “educated”, were not very well educated or insightful. Plus, there was zero cultural awareness of pronunciation differences and google translate hadn’t been invented yet. Americans heard what someone with an accent said and spelled it however they thought it sounded.
This is similar to what happened with the surnames on the ship manifests for immigrants arriving at Ellis Island at the time. Those errored manifests were then used to create official documents and the new name /spelling was indelibly marked–these new names are still being used by descendants today. The same thing happened to the word “marijuana”.
The Trump of the 30’s
Henry Anslinger was the Trump of the 1930’s.
Trump didn’t invent the “wall” and Trump didn’t invent the “birther movement”. Instead, he found mob-like opportunities to manipulate.
This is what Anslinger did too.
Anslinger was a racist puritan who did not engage in alcohol. He was a former alcohol prohibition agent and after the failure of alcohol prohibition (which ended in 1933), inventing cannabis prohibition was his new career. He desired an all white, religious, puritan United States–these skewed ideas were popular at the time.
But, Anslinger didn’t invent the fear and propaganda surrounding cannabis–that actually began in Mexico and is closely linked to the Catholic church.
Cannabis Prohibition Started in Mexico
The campaign against marijuana migrated up from Mexico. Much of it was related to the overwhelming influence of the Catholic church at the time on Mexican politics and society.
17 years before cannabis was outlawed in the US, it was made illegal in Mexico. Anslinger simply copied what the Mexican government had done.
Propaganda Also Started in Mexico
People often give William Randolph Hearst credit for inventing Reefer Madness with his yellow journalism. Sure he made it extreme, but the truth is, he also simply copied Mexico.
The book, Home Grown: Mexico’s War on Drugs, cites headlines from old Mexican newspapers that profess the fear of marijuana.
Negative headlines targeting cannabis, appeared in Mexico years before the US campaigns began.
And in reality, the propaganda against cannabis (and against all natural medicines) actually began hundreds of years earlier on another continent.
The Attack on Natural Medicine Originated in Europe
In Midevil Europe, the Catholic Church determined that the use of plants in healing was the work of the devil. The penalty for it was death.
The Catholic Church controlled all of Europe at the time.
The Spanish Conquests Brought the Attack to Mexico
From 1519-1521, the Spanish Conquests occurred. During this period, the Catholic Church sent conquistadors from Spain to North America where they murdered Aztecans, destroyed the native civilizations, and force-evangelized the remaining population.
Nahuatl, the native language of the Aztecan people, did not have a written language. Because of this much of the language and Aztecan culture was lost — including a rich medical knowledge of native plants.
The Word Marijuana Migrated North from Mexico
Oral traditions attribute the word marijuana to the Nahuatl culture, but the lack of written history combined with centuries of religious-induced stigma and propaganda make it impossible to fully trace the word.
The exact etymology of the word marijuana is filled with speculation. What we know for sure is, by the 1930’s marijuana was a common word in Mexico. It then made its way to the US, along with the practice of smoking dried cannabis flowers. The word, along with this new method of consumption, left a powerful and beautiful mark on cannabis history in the United States–despite prohibition.
US Cannabis Culture was Built Around “Marijuana”
I imagine Anslinger hoping for cannabis to be eradicated from the earth. Fortunately, and ONLY thanks to brave lawbreakers and freedom fighters, cannabis knowledge is more abundant than ever.
But for 80 years, most users remained silent about the benefits out of fear for the stigma and law. For a long time, most users weren’t brave enough to contradict social norms by speaking out. Except for a brave few.
These few tended to be individuals who routinely ignored all standard social cues. These were the people who dressed differently, spoke differently, and behaved differently than how society demanded. These individuals were often chided as “stoners”. And because they were the only ones talking about marijuana, their refusal to follow standard social cues became linked to the plant as part of the negative stigma.
However, it’s only thanks to these brave souls that the knowledge of the plant was kept alive until today. These “stoners” protected marijuana from a government seeking to eradicate it. To them, I am eternally grateful…we all should be.
Attack the Stigma Not the History
Some believe, that if we just call it cannabis, we’ll convince more people to accept the plant, but the attack on the language is misguided.
It’s not just the word marijuana that turns people off–it’s the plant itself. It’s the shape of the leaves. It’s the smell of a joint. It’s the site of a bong. People have a negative association to ALL things associated with cannabis, not just the word marijuana.
The good news is because of neural plasticity, people are capable of changing their association to words simply by creating new positive associations—this is one of the reasons I strive to use a variety of words to describe the plant.
So, whereas I understand the negative stigma associated to the word marijuana and the challenges it presents, I will continue to use it, because I will not support a cause that was born from white supremacy. I will not support a movement that tries to bleach away culture and history because it’s inconvenient.
Instead, I’ll respectfully continue to use all the words, while thanking and honoring the cultures and people that brought them to us. And while I do that, I’ll focus on attacking the negative associations to the plant itself.
If you’re uncomfortable with the word marijuana, no worries, don’t use it. But PLEASE, before attacking the word, keep in mind, it’s been documented that this argument was born from white supremacy in the 1930’s and myths have been propagated to propel it.
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