Ganja, pot, kush, weed, grass — cannabis has taken on many different names throughout its history in the U.S. As weed culture evolves, so does the slang used to describe the drug. But one word has stood the test of time: marijuana.
The etymology of marijuana has long been debated, with many potential explanations for the origins of the word. Some suggest folk origins with the name of “María Juana” and others theorize the word has linguistic origins outside of Spanish. Nevertheless, the term can be traced back to late-19th century Latin American Spanish, where it is also stylized as “marihuana” and “mariguana.”
To understand the popularization of the term in America, it’s vital to first consider how cannabis was consumed more than a hundred years ago.
Prior to the Mexican Revolution, in the early 1900s, medicines containing cannabis and its extracts were easily accessible — sold in local drugstores to treat common illnesses. Around the same time, experimenting with expensive cannabis-imported goods became a trend among the American elite. The term “marijuana” did not exist before 1910.
At the end of the 1920s, close to one million Mexican immigrants had come to the U.S. seeking refuge from the revolution. They brought with them the habit of smoking cannabis, a concept which had not yet entered mainstream U.S. culture.
When the Great Depression rocked the country, people began looking for scapegoats — Mexican immigrants and Black Americans. With that came the racialization and criminalization of the plant, which was largely accompanied by the propagation of the term “marijuana.”
Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a predecessor to the modern Drug Enforcement Administration, has been regarded as “the first architect of the War on Drugs,” according to CBS News. Once appointed, Anslinger launched a virulent anti-marijuana campaign to keep the FBN, a bureau reeling from a failed attempt at Prohibition, alive and well. Even though Anslinger had ridiculed the notion that cannabis led to increased violence, he flipped his stance just a couple years later.
Anslinger sought to rid the country of all drugs for personal political gain and was undoubtedly the root cause of the popularization of the word marijuana. Anslinger picked the word strategically — marijuana was “foreign-sounding,” easily associated with the new immigrant population. The “exotic” stylization of the word further drove the association, since it is in Spanish and not English, that the letter “j” is pronounced like the letter “h.”
In his speeches and appearances before Congress, Anslinger spewed racist propaganda, claiming that marijuana made brown and Black men “think they’re as good as white men.” Supporters then latched onto his crusade, spreading the racialized term into American vernacular and villainizing people of color. Anslinger’s claims, steeped in hatred, weren’t even medically accurate — 29 out of 30 doctors stated the drug was not dangerous.
But it was too late.
Soon enough, lawmakers across the states forgot that just decades earlier, the high and mighty (pun intended!) rich, white population had first introduced the drug into modern American consciousness. Mass media and yellow journalists carried his false messages across the country, spreading tales of crazed individuals who committed crimes under the influence of the drug. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, the end product of Anslinger’s campaign, federally criminalized cannabis in every state.
But racist anti-marijuana rhetoric didn’t stop there. Subsequent administrations continued what Anslinger had started. Enter President Richard Nixon and the War on Drugs (honorable mentions include former First Lady Nancy Reagan and the “Just Say No” campaign).
“Though the word ‘marijuana’ is the most common name for cannabis in the United States today, its history is deeply steeped in race, politics and a complicated cultural revolution,” writes Anna Wilcox on Leafly, a prominent cannabis related website.
Considering this, how we talk about marijuana matters. From the term itself to the discriminatory history it carries, our perception of cannabis has to change. Avenues of conversations need to stray away from the pejorative and dive deeper into exploring actual scientific facts.
Without a doubt, the history of cannabis in the United States is inextricably linked with racial narratives from the early 20th century.
Even now, as we have seemingly made progress as legalization has gained ground, we cannot speak about cannabis without also speaking about over-policing, racial profiling and incarceration. But that’s for another column.
Natalie Oganesyan is a sophomore writing about weed culture and politics. She is also the Arts & Entertainment Editor at the Daily Trojan Her column, “To be Blunt,” runs every other Thursday.