Green Report: Cannabis versus Marijuana, which is correct?

Dylan Simonson

A field of cannabis
A field of cannabis (Photo Courtesy of NIDA (NIH) on Flickr)

Cannabis, marijuana, ganja, weed, pot, the devil’s lettuce, wacky-tobaccy, and so many more are used to describe the beautiful plant we know and love today. But what is the proper term for it? In this article, we will focus on the two that are considered the “most correct” that are commonly used in the writing of legislation; cannabis and marijuana.

To start, let us discuss the scientific name classification of our friendly green stuff. It is obviously from the plant kingdom, and then we will skip down to its family classification, which is Cannabaceae. Cannabaceae houses other commonly known plants like hops, which are used in beer. Hops and cannabis are closely related. The genus is then Cannabis L. and the species that we know and commonly refer to is Cannabis sativa L.


There is also a species called Cannabis ruderalis, although it is not commonly used. Some people now classify indica strains of cannabis as Cannabis indica, but some say that it is still Cannabis sativa with the subspecies being indica, and that Cannabis indica is a different species altogether. For our purposes, we will use Cannabis sativa when referring to the species while including both indica and sativa strains.

So scientifically, the name we should use is Cannabis. Jonathan Page, an adjunct professor in the Botany Department at the University of British Columbia and CEO of cannabis-testing startup Anandia Labs, says that when he uses uppercase Cannabis it is used to describe the genus, while lower case cannabis is used to refer to the psychoactive flower, according to Angela Chen of The Verge. Chen also states that “cannabis” in general refers to both the smokable flower and the stalk part of the plant used for things like textiles, also known as “hemp” which we have discussed in detail in the past in our video series “Joint Venture”.

It is due to these facts, that many supporters of legalization prefer the term cannabis. Another huge reason is that there is a racist history associated with the term marijuana. Prior to 1894, the term “marijuana” has no known use. Instead, it was commonly referred to as hemp by supporters or devil’s lettuce/weed by those in favor of prohibition.

The term “marijuana” is often assumed to have come from Mexico (although its uncertain and could have come from Spain or China) and originally spelt marihuana, with the “j” taking the place on the “h” during the Nixon administration. In 1930, Harry Anslinger was the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and introduced the term to Congress to associate the plant with migrant Mexican workers. “Marijuana” sounds more foreign and dangerous to an inherently racist America in the 1930s than cannabis or hemp, so they used it as a scare tactic. Marijuana was used in reference to recreational use, specifically, that of Mexicans, rather than industrial and medical use. It was through these associations that Anslinger was able to pass his “Marihuana Tax Act of 1937” which started the prohibition of cannabis.

Anslinger is quoted as saying “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz, and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.” These blatantly racist lies helped pass his bill, even though many white Americans smoked cannabis too.

Chen, though, argues that in today’s world, it is ok to still use the word marijuana. She references Santiago Ivan Guerra, a professor of Southwest Studies at Colorado College, who states that the term was once used as a word of rebellion of native Mexicans against the Spanish, who made the natives stop growing their psychoactive drugs like peyote, morning glory, and psilocybin, and start growing hemp for its use in rope. The natives then learned the flowers were psychoactive and named it marihuana to reference it and please the Spanish by adding “Mary” to it, since the Spanish were actively working to convert everyone to Christianity.

Chen also argues, along with Guerra, that getting rid of the term could discredit and erase the problematic history of the word. Instead, it should be used when referring to recreational use of the plant versus scientific and medical.

At the end of the day, either word seems to be fine to use, although, a large majority of the cannabis community would like you to say cannabis rather than marijuana. If you do use the term marijuana, just try to be aware of the history of the word and understand why it was used, and what the word has come to mean in today’s modern language.  

Collegian Blogger Dylan Simonson can be reached online at or on Twitter @DylanSimonson0