Why It Can Be Okay To Call It ‘Marijuana’ Instead Of ‘Cannabis’

Photo Credit: Andre Malok

As marijuana goes mainstream, people are rethinking the term, claiming we should ditch “marijuana” because it’s racist, and instead, say “cannabis.” Individuals should say what they like, but this rule is too simplistic for such a complex drug. We should develop more, not fewer, words for what we need to say.

It makes sense that some want to avoid the “m-word.” Marijuana has always had a unique place in American history and politics, according to scholar Emily Dufton, author of Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana Activism in America. No other drug has inspired this kind of debate and been tied to issues from war to racism to criminal justice. (Dufton herself is an “equal-opportunity user” of words, who says part of the fun of writing about this drug is the ability to use so many different terms.)

But the word “marijuana” is not racist. It was once a means of rebellion, says Santiago Ivan Guerra, a professor of Southwest Studies at Colorado College. When Europeans first arrived in present-day Mexico, they ordered the indigenous residents to convert to Christianity and stop growing their own psychoactive drugs (morning glory, peyote, and psilocybin). Instead, the indigenous Mexicans were told to grow hemp for rope.

That’s when the residents discovered that this hemp plant could be psychoactive. To hide that they were using it, they started to code the language, says Guerra. Many plants in Mexico have some version of “mary” in the name to please the Spanish who pushed Christianity. And so the plant became “marihuana.”

By the 1930s, American government officials like Harry Anslinger were using “marijuana” as a pejorative to make the drug sound exotic and link it to poor Mexicans — even though plenty of white people smoked as well. (Anslinger was influenced by elite Mexicans, who also saw the plant as low-class, according to Guerra.) Today, a language divide remains. People who support legalization tend to call the drug “cannabis,” and those who don’t, call it “marijuana” — just look at Attorney General Jeff “good people don’t smoke marijuana” Sessions. So, the idea is that “good people” with chronic pain use “cannabis” as medicine, and it should be legalized to help them. Calling something “cannabis” gives it scientific legitimacy and respectability.

Yes, cannabis is the scientific name. But it’s not a very precise one, and even plant biologists get stuck when it comes to language. Cannabis actually refers to a category of plants, says Jonathan Page, an adjunct professor in the Botany Department at the University of British Columbia and CEO of cannabis-testing startup Anandia Labs. The plant that people know and love (or hate) is Cannabis sativa. (The jury is still out over whether there are other species of cannabis, like Cannabis indica and Cannabis ruderalis, though, confusingly, people use words like “indica” to describe strains of Cannabis sativa.) And there’s more: “cannabis” means both the drug that people smoke to get stoned, and hemp, which isn’t psychoactive and is used for cloth. Same plant, different purposes, same word.

In Page’s lab, upper-case Cannabis refers to the genus and lower-case cannabis refers to the plant. He also uses “hemp” to describe cannabis that is grown for seed for food or textiles. The psychoactive plant is called “drug-type cannabis,” and then he’ll use “cannabis” to describe just the flower part.

This is awkward! It’s hard to imagine teens saying, “let’s smoke some drug-type cannabis,” right? “You’re going to want to use the language that corresponds to the way that ordinary people use the drug,” says Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist who teaches at the UC Berkeley’s School of Information. “I don’t think ‘cannabis’ is ever going to push out ‘marijuana’ in the general lexicon.” Plus, he adds, words are always changing their meanings.

With “marijuana,” there was always “a kind of humorous furtiveness about the drug,” Nunberg says. The slang word “pot” probably comes from the Spanish “potiguaya” (seeds), and terms like “weed” and “grass” were meant to be tongue-in-cheek terms, poking run at anti-marijuana propaganda like Reefer Madness. There will always be a variety of words used to describe drugs.

Getting rid of “marijuana” likely won’t make a big difference for stigma, says Guerra. “I don’t think switching out the word ‘cannabis’ for marijuana does much to silence the stigma of what actually took place and what’s taken place around the war on cannabis and the people it’s targeted,” he says. “It wouldn’t change the motives or the arguments of either side.”

There are benefits to keeping it. Not only is it a simple way to describe to “the flower part of drug-type cannabis,” it reminds us that the plant isn’t just medicine. Switching to just the scientific, medicinal-sounding “cannabis” doesn’t necessarily make it clear that it’s okay to use cannabis for non-scientific, non-medicinal reasons.

And replacing “marijuana” with “cannabis” can erase its history. “The term should continue to be used so that people have to be reminded about this problematic history and the problematic relationship we have with this plant and the type of relationships that it’s created between different populations,” says Guerra. As Page, the UBC botanist, notes, it’s rare for a different name for a part of the plant — like the flower — to exist in addition to the one for the plant itself. That’s a result of how wrapped up marijuana is in different areas.

So, we don’t have to throw out the term altogether — but we should remember its history. We should use the best term for the best purpose. It makes sense to talk about “cannabis” when it comes to the scientific study and “marijuana” when discussing recreational use. And the words are still changing. For example, the term “dabbing” refers to a way that people consume marijuana, but it’s also been used to talk about a type of concentrate, too, according to Guerra. “We need scholars to document and see where the patterns lie that would allow for us to get at these nuances,” he says. This is a living discussion in a living language.