Few substances in the world have  garnered as many nicknames as the Cannabis plant. The note by Mr. G. A. Grierson, appended to the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report, which catalog references to the hemp plant occurring in Sanskrit and Hindi literature, includes terms celebrating the spiritually and physically invigorating properties of the herb, such as Indracana, ‘the food of Indra’, Bhanga and Vijaya or ‘Victory’.

Franz Rosenthal’s study of the use of hemp in medieval Islamic culture and its associated controversies includes catalogues of epithets drawn from the lists of medieval Muslim  commentators. These include names like, ‘the shrub of understanding’, the shrub of emotion and some names still in use today, like the Turkic esrar, or ‘secrets’.

A browse through any dictionary of street slang will likewise yield an abundance of terms for Cannabis waxing and waning in popularity through the twentieth century from’ gaje’ and ’muggles’ of the Jazz age to the language of contemporary street culture. Be that as it may, the most recognizable name for the dried buds of the Cannabis plant, and one of the few older terms still in use today, is “marijuana”.

The Mysterious Origins of the term ‘Marijuana’

The word marijuana comes from Mexican Spanish, Marihuana, also spelled Mariguana. Very little is known about the origin of the Mexican Spanish word but in English the term, ‘Marijuana’ refers to the variety of the Cannabis plant with the scientific name, Cannabis Sativa var. Indica. It’s the variety with a high concentration of the psychoactive compounds in marijuana. On the other hand hemp refers to the variety of the plant with much less potent significant psychoactive properties.

In the Sino-Platonic Papers, published by Alan Piper which delves into the origins of the word, ‘Marijuana’, he refers to the 1894 Scribner’s Magazine feature “The American Congo”, by John G. Bourke as being the first attested usage of a term resembling ‘marijuana’. The word Marijuana, together with the use of herbal Cannabis as an intoxicant, is consistently identified as coming into the USA from Mexico, being bought there by migrant workers.

Weston T. La Barre in his book, Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany suggests that marijuana may ‘plausibly be derived from a Chinese word for hemp, bought by Chinese coolie labourers in Western Mexico’. This speculation was rooted in the coincidental presence of phonetic elements of Chinese expressions which sound similar to the Mexican Spanish, marijuana. For instance ma hua which means ‘hemp flowers’ is attested as a term for the psychoactive preparation of Cannabis by Joseph Needham in his book Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Magistries of Gold and Immortality, Alchemy and Chemistry, in Science and civilization in China. Ma ren is attested as the standard term for Cannabis seed. ‘Ma Ren Hua’ if such a term existed, would mean ‘hemp seed flowers’, a term which could well be applied to the resinous ‘flower heads’ prized for their intoxicating powers.

Marijuana, a troubled history

In the early 1900s, the Mexican revolution sparked a convergence of mass migration north and individuals of Mexican heritage in the United States increased from 100,000 in 1900 to 1.5 million in 1930.

During this period anti-Mexican sentiments spiked in the U. S fueled by the Illegal Bisbee Deportation in 1917, where armed vigilantes rounded up over 1000 Mexican mine workers, herded them into filthy boxcars in Bisbee, Arizona and abandoned them across the New Mexico border. Further the government backed Mexican repatriation in the 1920s and 30s that forced people of Mexican descent, many of whom were US citizens across the border without due process added fuel to already sour relations between Americans and Mexicans. The Great Depression during that period didn’t help the situation as Americans contended with Mexican ranch workers, who frequently consented to work for lower compensation.

Against this setting prohibitionists like Henry Anslinger – a former alcohol prohibitionist who ran the federal bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962 – started to use the term “marihuana” (marijuana) instead of Cannabis sparking preposterous claims about the drug. Anslinger sought and ultimately received, as head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, an increase of reports about smoking of marijuana in 1936 that continued to spread at an accelerated pace in 1937. Before, smoking of marijuana had been relatively slight and confined to the Southwest, particularly along the Mexican border. The Bureau first prepared a legislative plan to seek from Congress a new law that would place marijuana and its distribution directly under federal control. Second, Anslinger ran a campaign against marijuana on radio, newspapers and at major forums. He was quoted saying, ”Most marijuana smokers are colored people, jazz musicians, and entertainers. Their satanic music is driven by marijuana, and marijuana smoking by white women makes them want to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and others. It is a drug that causes insanity, criminality, and death — the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”

Assisting Anslinger in this spread of misinformation was Media tycoon and newspaper publisher William Hearst who also echoed the same anti-Mexican sentiments. He was born in San Francisco, California as the only child of, George Hearst, a self made multimillionaire miner and rancher. In 1887 at the age of 23 he became proprietor of the San Francisco Examiner. Inspired by the journalism of Joseph Pulitzer, Hearst turned the newspaper into a combination of reformist investigative reporting and uninhibited sensationalism. At his peak he owned 28 newspapers and 18 magazines. He would often resort to ‘yellow journalism’, the in your face, outrageous editorial style made famous by Pulitzer. He used his newspaper chain to frequently stir up racial tensions. Hearst’s newspapers portrayed Mexicans as lazy, degenerate and violent, marijuana-smokers who stole jobs from “real Americans.” Hearst’s hatred of Mexicans and his hyping of the “Mexican threat” to America likely was rooted in the 800,000 acres of timberland that had been confiscated from him by Pancho Villa during the Mexican revolution.

Marijuana – A Foreign Drug

Anslinger used the term Marijuana to make the plant seem foreign and stoke the already simmering anti Mexican racism. His goal was to disassociate Marijuana with Cannabis and in this he succeeded. The general public of the time did not have access to television or internet, just newspapers that often printed yellow ink, telling them about a new Mexican drug that made people go crazy. Even people who took cannabis for medicinal reasons turned against the new Mexican menace.

In 1937, Anslinger went before the Congressional Ways and Means Committee, and testified about marijuana use. Anslinger said, “Some people will fly into a delirious rage, and they are temporarily irresponsible and may commit violent crimes,” while Doughton called the “menace” an “evil” that made people “become criminals.” The only person who disagreed with these assessments was Dr. William Woodward of the American Medical Association who argued against Cannabis prohibition by saying, “I use the word ‘cannabis’ in preference to the word ‘marihuana’ because cannabis is the correct term for describing the plant and its products. As noted by the doctor in the hearings, people who embraced marijuana prohibition often had no idea it had anything to do with Cannabis or hemp. Anslinger and his deputies very smartly turned the public against Cannabis by popularising the term Marijuana and making it the enemy while disguising the fact that the prohibitionists wanted to ban Cannabis.

Marijuana – The current climate

While several states in the US have legalized marijuana and more are still to follow suit, that hasn’t stopped law enforcement from punishing those who own even negligible quantities of illegal weed. 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. 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.

Although the term Marijuana isn’t inherently Racist, there’s no denying that Cannabis prohibition is rooted in racism, xenophobia and trickery. It’s clear that Americans need to do more to get rid of the racial divide which to this day still exists while also distancing themselves from prohibitionists of the past whose goal was to spread hatred and dissent among the working class.


Malcolm Pinto.