Cannabis, not marijuana

Posted onDecember 28, 2017 AuthorJosh Kaplan Comments Offon Cannabis, not marijuana
Let’s stop saying “marijuana”. It’s “cannabis”.

For 2018, one of our New Year’s resolutions should be to rid ourselves of the term marijuana. Let’s acknowledge its racism-steeped past, recognize its rich medicinal history, and take an important step towards full legalization. But first, why we use the term “marijuana” in the first place…


It was always cannabis. In plant taxonomy terms, Cannabis sativa is a plant that has been used for the strength of its fibers and medicinal properties for thousands of years. Even into the early 1930’s, cannabis was being consumed regularly for the treatment of migraine, nausea, and other ailments.

But in 1934, Harry Anslinger took over the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and made it his mission to criminalize marijuana possession. His strategy: scare the American public by associating it with Mexican immigrants, and make it evil. After all, Mexican immigrants were using cannabis recreationally. But they called it marijuana.

The term “marijuana” was introduced to the US by Mexican immigrants who came to the US during the Mexican Revolution, a period of great political turmoil between 1910 and 1920. One of the most common versions of the famous La Cucharacha, sung by soldiers and civilians supporting Pancho Villa included marijuana in its lyrics:

Spanish English
La cucaracha, la cucaracha, The cockroach, the cockroach,
ya no puede caminar can’t walk anymore
porque no tiene, porque le falta because it doesn’t have, because it’s lacking
marihuana que fumar. marijuana to smoke.
When Anslinger went on the attack against cannabis, he didn’t call it cannabis. It was a deliberate strategy to avoid using the words “cannabis” or “hemp”, two innocent and soft sounding words, in favor of the unknown and harsher sounding “marijuana”. It gave him the opportunity to make the fresh association to the American public: marijuana and immigrants were linked. And not only that, it made them dangerous.

William Randolph Hearst, media mogul and father of yellow journalism, was Anslinger’s megaphone. Through Hearst, Anslinger generated fear in this alien drug called marijuana. It was turning good people evil; it created thieves, and killers; it made Mexicans and African Americans lust for white women. Marijuana was at the heart of immigrant crime.

And it worked. By 1937, Anslinger was in front of Congress to support a bill that would criminalize the possession of “marijuana” (the Marijuana Tax Act essentially criminalized its possession by creating unreasonably high tariffs on its possession). Despite claims by a representative from the American Medical Association that 1) marijuana has not been proven to be harmful in the ways claimed by Anslinger, and 2) most physicians didn’t even know marijuana and cannabis were the same thing, the bill overwhelmingly gained approval.


The number of cannabis-related arrests are vastly weighted towards minority populations despite ubiquitous use patterns throughout the population. Many have died because of cannabis, not through overdose or its harmful impacts on the body, but in gang-related killings in the cannabis drug trade. Simple possession charges have broken families, disproportionately affecting African Americans and minority men, in part a holdover from cannabis’ racially-tinged history over the last 80 years.

And the negative social stigma has been pervasive. Nancy Regan’s Just Say No campaign solidified marijuana’s stigma in a new generation of Americans; cannabis’ medicinal abilities were of course never discussed. Many are surprised to learn about cannabis treatment for pain, migraine, nausea. But our American ancestors at the turn of the 20th century would be surprised that cannabis is no longer associated with medicine, and instead, it’s considered dangerous to the same order of magnitude (be federal government definition) as heroin, quaaludes, and LSD.

Does this stigma impact its treatment potential? Work by prominent UCLA Psychiatrist, Dr. Thomas J. Ungerleider, described how important “set” and “setting” are in cannabis’ effects in his commentary of his career’s work in Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding (1999). It extends what we know about the importance of expectation in medicine; our brains are powerful regulators of drug success.

Even though cannabis has been repeatedly demonstrated to be therapeutically effective for a host of disorders and ailments in rodents (presumably with no expectation), children (little to no expectation), and adults, a negative expected outcome based on social stigma and expectation of harm from decades of anti-marijuana campaigns can hinder its success. If a positive expectation can drive treatment success with minimally-effective drugs or placebos, then it stands to reason that one tainted in social stigma could impede maximal treatment outcomes. Indeed, there’s a well-documented medical phenomenon called the “nocebo” effect in which there’s a detrimental effect on health caused by negative expectations. The brain can override some of cannabis’ positive effects, if we let it. We need to wipe away the social stigma attached to medicinal cannabis use.

So let’s start by moving away from marijuana and returning to cannabis.

We can even retain the alliteration! “Medicinal marijuana” sounds nice, but why not “clinical cannabis”? Let’s perpetuate the latter.

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Tagged anslinger, cannabis, Hearst, History, marijuana

Josh Kaplan
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