The Etymology of Marijuana and How the Name of Cannabis has Changed

I’ll be the first to admit it. Up until five years ago, I wasn’t aware of the xenophobic and racist connotations of the word “marijuana.” I’ve always just referred to it as “weed” or “cannabis,” and never thought about the etymology of marijuana. It wasn’t until issues of legalization came into focus that the name got a bit of a magnifying glass over it for me. The history is well documented and it warrants mentioning that this is in no way a new thing or part of “cancel culture.” The proper name for cannabis (in scientific circles and with regards to medical or legal connections) is, well, cannabis.

The scientific name is Cannabis Sativa, and the popular theory is that the genus of this flowering plant originates from Asia. However, disputes about the origins of the actual word “marijuana” are, in part, due to the alleged birthplace.

1910 “marijuana” appears

Before 1910 the word “marijuana” did not exist in America. Instead, texts refer to “cannabis” as medicine or remedy for a natural resource for common household sicknesses. At the start of the 20th century, big pharma companies such as Bristol-Myers Squib and Eli Lilly included cannabis and cannabis extracts in the medicines they produced. They prescribed cannabis to treat things we have had to fight for today, such as insomnia, migraines and rheumatism. Scientific journals published hundreds of articles detailing the therapeutic benefits of cannabis.

Alexander Dumas (Père) was a large part of the glamorization of hashish products. If you don’t recognize the name, Dumas was the french author behind The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.

In contrast to today, elite Americans who were wealthy enough to afford imported goods championed recreational hash. Compared to the average American using it primarily for medicinal purposes at the time.  Dumas is arguably the most well-known French writer in history, although his maternal family was originally from Haiti.

How does this fit into the “marijuana” etymology?

Everything started to change with the Mexican Revolution. When over 890,000 Mexicans legally immigrated into the United States to find safety from the civil war destroying their lives. It wasn’t until these refugees brought smoking cannabis to the average American’s attention that it became commonplace recreationally. This influx of immigrants started in 1910 and lasted until the civil war ended in 1920.

By 1913, the first bill criminalizing the growing of “Locoweed” passed in California. The Board of Pharmacy was pushing to regulate opiates and psychoactive pharmaceuticals. Many argue the bigotry faced by the immigrant population was key in instituting this social control. Border states were the first to outlaw cannabis. It’s widely believed that El Paso, Texas, was the first American city to prohibit sale or possession in 1914.

When the Great Depression struck in the 1930s, American’s looked for a handy scapegoat to blame their trauma on. With the influx of immigrants in the south and the rise of jazz, white America’s love affair with cannabis ended. Now, they viewed cannabis and its users (predominately Black and Mexican folks) as a corruption aimed at the minds and bodies of the lower class.

Criminalization cements the name

Before the federal criminalization of the plant on an independent level, 29 states banned the herb that became known as “marijuana.” In 1930, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics appointed its first director, Harry Anslinger.

Harry Anslinger is the primary person responsible for the stigma we are still working to correct today. He was in power for over 30 years, and his campaign against cannabis held steady for his entire career. An outspoken man, he used the new creation of movie theatres to spread the hateful message that racialized the plant further for white America.

How has the language for cannabis evolved for you? Let us know in the comments.