The cannabis plant has acquired many nicknames over the years that are popular and used across the world today. A popular variant is the name, ‘marijuana.’ Yet, the word’s Mexican Spanish origin and history are not commonly known or publicized in the cannabis industry.

Recently, the media has become sensitive to the word’s background and only last year, Salon Magazine featured an article discussing marijuana’s potentially racial and negative connotations.

So, what is all the fuss about? Where did the word ‘marijuana’ come from? Read on to find out more about how the word ‘marijuana’ became known in the US and why many people opt to use the plant’s botanical name, cannabis, instead.

During the early 20th century, cannabis was the preferred term that was widely used for the cannabaceae plant in the US. This developed from the inclusion of cannabis extracts in medicines by Pharmaceutical companies, such as Bristol Myers Squib and El Lilly. Which was used to treat migraines, insomnia and other common ailments. Cannabis then became a popular trend with wealthy Americans that had the money to import goods and enjoy the substance.

Yet, it was the Mexican Revolution and the immigration that followed that altered the perception of cannabis. Many Mexicans sought refuge after 1910 and over 890,000 crossed the border into the US. They brought with them what they called ‘mariguana,’ as well as a recreational smoking habit that was alien to many ordinary Americans.

What followed were new laws criminalizing ‘locoweed’ and the first bill was passed in the state of California. Although this was initially a way for the Board of Pharmacy to regulate opiates and substances in circulation, by 1930, 29 states banned the use of ‘marijuana’ and resentment towards immigrants that used ‘mariguana’ grew.

The Great Depression intensified the emerging bad race relations, with new immigrants becoming the targets of abuse and particularly those that used cannabis recreationally. With soaring unemployment, increased crime rates and general dissatisfaction in the US, the plant was attributed to crime and associated with non-American, Spanish speakers who were ‘foreign’ and seen as causing all of these problems.

Harry Anslinger, the director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was an outspoken critic of cannabis and played a central role in the stigmatization of ‘marijuana’ in the US. Through campaigns, appearances, and propaganda, he appealed to white audiences who were dissatisfied, and emphasized the ‘foreign’ Hispanic roots of the word ‘marijuana,’ spreading bigotry and hate. He testified that marijuana caused violence and was used by ‘Negroes, Hispanics and Filipinos,’ as well as entertainers who released suggestive, ‘satanic’ jazz and swing music. Cannabis was no longer associated with medicinal herbs and had become known across the country as ‘marijuana’ with negative connotations of crime and degeneracy.

Anslinger’s campaigning paid off with the passing of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. This had the effect of federally criminalizing the possession of cannabis across the country and codifying the name into law. With strict prohibition, there was punishment by imprisonment and fines of up to $2,000. It was now an outlawed substance and the word ‘marijuana’ no longer merited medicinal credit.

There is no doubt that after examining the history of the word ‘marijuana,’ there are negative racial and political undertones that threaten its verbal use. Some people believe that using the term disregards the oppression felt by immigrants at that time. While some people in the US may forget this history today, it is worth remembering the etymology of marijuana.

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