Starting a new job is never easy — trying to remember everyone’s name, completing endless tax and insurance forms (beneficiaries???? ) . . . not to mention mastering the corporate jargon.

The roadblock I hit: “Cannabis” versus “Marijuana”– What is the correct word to use?

I have always preferred the term “cannabis,” because that’s what it is. “Marijuana,” on the other hand, has a less than “dictionary perfect” history.

So which word is right? And does that make the other one wrong?

Who said what? When? Where …and Why?

Cannabis” is the botanical name for the plant genus cannabis

In the United States, “marijuana” is derived from “Marihuana,” a word carried over by migrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution. It’s exact origin remains a mystery, but sources confirm that Mexican immigrants used the term in the early 1900s to refer to the cannabis they consumed after a long day of work.

But a man named  Harry Anslinger had big plans for “marijuana.“   

Anslinger served as the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics for over 30 years starting in 1930 and was extremely anti-cannabis. During his tenure, he led a campaign to criminalize the plant and would repeatedly and intentionally use “Marijuana” in an attempt to associate the plant with immigrants. 

During this time, unemployment and poverty heightened resentment and fear toward immigrants and minorities. By appealing to the xenophobia and economic anxiety that was prevalent at the time and leaning into the “supposed connection” between the immigrants and cannabis, Anslinger was able to gain public support for the criminalization of cannabis.

Then came a little movie called  Reefer Madness. This film served as propaganda to fuel panic and fear about cannabis and would mark the beginning of cannabis criminalization and the start of what we now recognize as the War on Drugs. This 1936 propaganda film and Ansliger’s persistent, one-man misinformation campaign contributed to widespread panic and fear about cannabis. Anslinger’s propaganda and fear-mongering laid the groundwork for the war on cannabis that would soon follow.  

Testifying before Congress in 1937, he encouraged its immediate prohibition. Get a load of this:

“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind,” he said during his testimony. “Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage.” 

The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 prohibited the sale and use of cannabis and marked the start of a global anti-cannabis campaign with irreparable damage. The war on cannabis epitomized America’s growing prejudice toward the influx of Mexican immigrants and Black people.

Word for Word

So based on what I’ve laid out so far, one could think that using “marijuana” is an example of systemic racism, a continuation of Anslinger’s xenophobic and racially-charged propaganda. Using the word “cannabis” is the way to go.  It’s the scientific word, after all. 

Well, not so fast.

It’s all about saying what you mean and meaning what you say.  For example: “gay marriage” or “marriage equality”?  It’s one thing and not the other. “Black” or “African-American”?  They are not the same.  Why “climate change” instead of “global warming”? Simple: “climate change” is more accurate. The fact is that language and terminology evolve.

Sometimes this happens organically. Other times, it’s forced.

Earlier this year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that Michigan’s Marijuana Regulatory Agency would be renamed the Cannabis Regulatory Agency. Last month, the governor of Washington signed a bill changing “marijuana” (which was used previously) to “cannabis” throughout the Revised Code of Washington. This month, the US House of Representatives passed the MORE Act for the second time which, if passed, would replace all statutory references to “marijuana” with “cannabis.” 

Nevertheless, the term “marijuana” is still used in federal legislation, media reports, scientific research, medicine, and by  advocacy, trade, and professional associations. 

 So what am I trying to say

 It’s complicated. A one-size-fits-all model simply does not work. When it comes to cannabis or marijuana, a single word doesn’t define what it is or incorporate, celebrate, and educate its history.

 So it comes down to this: Everyone should make informed decisions on word choice. 

We have the right to say whatever we want, but it also means that others have the right to criticize and differ in opinion. We all know that freedom of expression does not mean freedom from consequence and critique. 

People should make informed decisions about what word they want to use, and they shouldn’t be demonized for it. While this is worthy of debate, we would be better served by working toward ending cannabis criminalization. After all, the words “marijuana” or “cannabis” did not lock people up; its the oppressive and racist laws and their enforcement that continue to decimate so many communities and generations.