Cannabis by any other name would work just the same. So why should we stick with calling it cannabis?
A Scientific Term
First, cannabis is the genus for the plant in the Cannabaceae family (1). As medical professionals, it serves our patients to stick to Science, and that includes using the proper scientific name for medications. There are several species in the genus, including C. indica and C. sativa (2), but as both are medicinally similar, we refer to the plant by the genus name, rather than the species name. By using the scientific name, we lend credence to the medical application of the plant.
Of course, there are other names for cannabis. In fact, it’s reported there are over 200 names for the “devil’s lettuce”. (9) Weed, Chronic, Pot, Hemp, Mary Jane, Reefer, Dope, Grass – you get the picture. Some of these words became common in the 1930s with jazz musicians and their followers. They would speak in code to avoid mention of the vilified cannabis plant. (6) Other terms have their roots elsewhere: Pot comes from the Spanish term “potación de guaya”, referring to a brandy steeped like tea with cannabis buds. (7) Weed comes from the term “locoweed”, referring to a North American toxic plant unrelated to the cannabis plant. (8)
None of those terms serve our patients’ needs.
Then there is the big one – marijuana. The term comes from 1840s Mexico and grew in popularity in 1910 when almost a million immigrants came from Mexico escaping from civil war (3). Newspapers from the United States used the term marijuana when they described cannabis users committing crimes and related usage to poverty, the lower class, and prisoners. Essentially, the term marijuana was “popularized in the United States to stoke anti-Mexican sentiment.” (4) Prior to 1910, the term most widely used was, in fact, cannabis. At that time, cannabis was mostly used in medicines made by pharmaceutical companies (3).
A Dark History
By the time the Great Depression hit, white Americans were using the black and Mexican peoples, as well as other immigrants, as scapegoats (5). Harry Anslinger, the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, famously told Congress:
“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind… Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage.” (3)
Anslinger stoked racist and fear fueled sentiments regarding cannabis and fed them to a hungry news media. In 1936, Reefer Madness was released in theaters, stirring up hysteria among its viewers. The movie taught viewers that cannabis is a deadly drug that will cause you to lose your mind and commit crimes like manslaughter. (10)
Thanks to Anslinger’s hard work and that of the media, cannabis was federally criminalized with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, and growers and users of plants were heavily taxed, as well as potentially fined or imprisoned. (3) This act was actually declared unconstitutional in 1969, but it was replaced in 1970 by the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). (9) Sadly the CSA immediately placed cannabis into Schedule 1 which is intended for dangerous substances that have no medical value. Data, of course, even at that time, had shown significant medical value from cannabis.
It is important to know where the term marijuana comes from, and how it has been used over a hundred-year period. It is also vital that we choose our words carefully, especially when the alternatives are mired in a century of racist history. As we work toward our efforts of making cannabis a conventional medicine, it is important to consider the terms we use and choose only the ones that will show respect toward our patients and their illnesses, as well as demonstrate reverence toward the cannabis plant as medicine.
We encourage you to use the word cannabis going forward. It is an intelligent, science-backed, and hate-free way to talk about a most important little plant.
- Dictionary of Medical Terms. Bloomsbury Publishing. 2010. p. 139. ISBN 978-1-4081-3635-5. Retrieved 09 September 2023.
- USDA plants database. (n.d.). https://plants.usda.gov/home/basicSearchResults?resultId=e2d1b05f-36cb-4b31-af64-27dcd7388b48. Retrieved 09 September 2023.
- Wilcox, A. (2020, July 28). The origin of the word “marijuana.” Leafly. https://www.leafly.com/news/cannabis-101/where-did-the-word-marijuana-come-from-anyway-01fb. Retrieved 09 September 2023.
- Woelfel, M. (2019, September 19). Pot? weed? marijuana? what should we call it?. Pot? Weed? Marijuana? What Should We Call It? https://www.npr.org/local/309/2019/09/19/762044859/pot-weed-marijuana-what-should-we-call-it. Retrieved 09 September 2023.
- Public Broadcasting Service. (n.d.). Marijuana timeline | busted - america’s war on marijuana | frontline. PBS. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/dope/etc/cron.html. Retrieved 09 September 2023.
- Holson, Laura. “Marijuana, Reefer, Weed: Language and the Devil’s Lettuce.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 July 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/07/04/style/marijuana-weed-cannabis-pot.html. Retrieved 09 September 2023.
- Dictionary.com. (2021, January 19). Why is marijuana also called pot?. Dictionary.com. https://www.dictionary.com/e/pot-marijuana/. Retrieved 09 September 2023.
- Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Locoweed. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/plant/locoweed. Retrieved 09 September 2023.
- Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.-b). The dope on Dope: 8 facts about marijuana. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/list/the-dope-on-dope-8-facts-about-marijuana. Retrieved 09 September 2023.
- Hunt, K. (2020, April 23). Marijuana panic won’t die, but Reefer Madness Will Live Forever. https://daily.jstor.org/marijuana-panic-wont-die-but-reefer-madness-will-live-forever/. Retrieved 09 September 2023.