A history of the word ‘marijuana,’ why we should stop saying it

Maddie Wright

Collegian file photo

Weed. Grass. Pot. Reefer. Dope. Ganja Dank. With an endless list of terms to describe cannabis, why do most people still use the word with racial ties?

The word “marijuana” has a grim history in the United States. In the early 20th century, after prohibition, America was on the hunt for something new to criticize. The government went after a substance popular in Latin American cultures and took their word to help vilify it.

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“At the end of the Great Depression during World War II, the political people were trying to find a population to blame and scapegoat for the troubles of the country, and that was shortly after a million Mexicans had immigrated (to the US),” said Tavon Boaman, a senior majoring in geology and music who also serves as an Inclusive Community Assistant for Residence Life. 

When former U.S. president Richard Nixon came to power, so did the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs was a government campaign focused on the prohibition and criminalization of drugs. It is often criticized to have targeted minorities, leading to high incarceration rates amongst people of color. 

According to DrugPolicy.org, “nearly 80 percent of people in federal prison and almost 60 percent of people in state prison for drug offenses are Black or Latino.” Coincidingly, according to the Washington Post, Black and white people use cannabis at around the same rate. So shouldn’t the arrest rate look the same? 

The Assistant to the President of Domestic Affairs at the time, John Ehrlichman, said, in a 22-year-old interview for Harper’s Magazine, We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” 

This approach resulted in the discriminatory practices that are still around today.

“That was a really sad thing that happened,” Boaman said. “That tried to demonize an entire population of people.”

While studying the War on Drugs, Quentin Heuvel, a freshman at Colorado State University studying political science, learned about why the word “marijuana” was popularized. 

“I came across various articles that showed the really racial ties that it had, especially the term ‘marijuana’ and just the war on drugs,” Heuvel said. “In general, it was really a slander campaign against minorities in the United States to keep them out of the political sphere.”

The word “marijuana” is so embedded in American society that most people probably do not realize it is racist. Many public documents and doctors still use the term. 

“We’ve seen 250,000 people being deported for drug law violations since 2007,” Heuvel said. “In 2013, marijuana possession was the fourth most common cause of deportation. These are just some of the easy ones I’ve found in my research. I’ve gone through the statistics, and this is stuff I’m really confident in.”

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It’s true. Also according to drugpolicy.org, almost 250,000 people have been deported because of non-violent drug ofenses. That’s more than one in 10 people who were deported. In 2013, 20,000 people were deported for possession of a drug or drug paraphanelia. 

If you’re reading this with your Mr. Mackey from South Park goggles on, saying to yourself, “It doesn’t matter what you call it, drugs are bad, and I want nothing to do with people who use them,” Heuval suggests to not hate the player, hate the game.

“We need to make sure (that) we as a nation are really trying to get people the help they need if they want it, but we shouldn’t be criminalizing people for what they’re doing with their own bodies because it’s entirely their choice,” Heuval said. “Obviously, you’re going to have problems with driving and stuff, but you just legislate that the same way you do drinking and DUIs.”

Here’s the good news: There are about 1,000 other words to describe cannabis. You just have to get the M-word out of your vocabulary. 

“I would like to see more people becoming educated about it and then deciding for themselves not to use it,” Boaman said.

Collegian reporter Maddie Wright can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @maddierwright.