It’s been known as dope, grass, herb, gage, tea, reefer, chronic. But the most familiar name for the dried buds of the cannabis plant, and one of the few older terms still in use today, is “marijuana”.
For the prohibitionists of nearly a century ago, the exotic-sounding word emphasized the drug’s foreignness to white Americans and appealed to the xenophobia of the time. As with other racist memes, a common refrain was that marijuana would lead to miscegenation.
Henry Anslinger, the bureaucrat who led the prohibition effort, is credited as saying back then: “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.”
Today “cannabis” and “marijuana” are terms used more or less interchangeably in the industry, but a vocal contingent prefers the less historically fraught “cannabis”. At a time of intense interest in past injustices, some say “marijuana” is a racist word that should fall out of use.
Harborside, which is among the oldest and largest dispensaries in California, says on its website: “‘Marijuana’ has come to be associated with the idea that cannabis is a dangerous and addictive intoxicant, not a holistic, herbal medicine … This stigma has played a big part in stymying cannabis legalization efforts throughout the US.”
It’s clear why a business like Harborside would prefer the more scientific word for branding purposes, but does that mean everyone should follow along?
The word “marijuana” comes from Mexico, but its exact origins remain unknown. According to the book Cannabis: A History by Martin Booth, it may derive from an Aztec language or soldiers’ slang for “brothel” – Maria y Juana.
The practice of smoking it arrived in the US from the south during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mexican laborers and soldiers carried it into the American south-west. Sailors brought it from Brazil and the Caribbean when they docked in New Orleans, where black jazz musicians adopted it.
In the last few years, the US state marijuana legalization experiments have grown into a multi-billion dollar industry. But while companies build out multi-million dollar grow houses and edibles factories, huge numbers of people continue to face serious consequences for possessing negligible quantities. After legalization in Colorado, arrests of black and Latino juveniles for illegal possession increased.
In 2016, there were almost 600,000 US marijuana arrests, more than for all violent crimes combined. The vast majority of those pot arrests were for low-level possession – and disproportionately affected minorities.
Statistics show different races use marijuana at roughly the same rate, but racial minorities are far more likely to face punishment. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, between 2001 and 2010, African Americans were arrested for marijuana possession at almost four times the rate of whites.
Relatively few of the 600,000 will serve extended prison sentences for marijuana-related offenses, but having a past conviction can still block access to housing, student loans and employment.
With legalization, some states and communities want to help those carrying minor cannabis convictions to be able to clear their record. Similarly, several cities and states are trying to create so-called equity programs to enable entrepreneurs from communities hit hardest by the war on drugs to join the industry.
But when the industry had the chance to take a stand against the racism of the past, it backed down.
After the 2016 election, Donald Trump nominated the then Alabama senator Jeff Sessions to be attorney general, the country’s top law enforcement official. While some Republicans, including Trump, have expressed a willingness to co-exist with marijuana, especially for medical purposes, Sessions remains an unreformed drug warrior. In 2016, he said: “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Instead of protesting his all-but-assured confirmation, the industry’s primary trade group, the National Cannabis Industry Association [NCIA], decided not to risk angering him.
The now attorney general has since reversed the more lenient Obama-era policies and ordered federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges they can, likely resulting in more drug offenders spending longer in prison.
For Sessions, it’s easier to come down hard on ordinary lawbreakers, who are disproportionately black and brown, than state-licensed cannabis business owners, who are overwhelmingly white.
The industry’s response has been to let him – while encouraging people to call the plant cannabis.
As with other symbols of past oppression, from the pink triangle to the n-word, there’s a powerful tradition of marginalized communities redeploying symbols of their oppression. It’s these communities – not businesses – who have the moral authority to decide if marijuana is a racist word which should be avoided or an important reminder of a more racist past.