Marijuana, Marihuana and Mariguana: What’s in a Name?

By Daniel Shortt

Photo by Didier le Ger, used under Creative Commons License.

Photo by Didier le Ger, used under Creative Commons License.

Cannabis is known by many names in the US. The most popular moniker is “marijuana” and has been for some time. In 2013, AlJazeera America documented the history of the term. In the 19th century, cannabis was the preferred term, found on medicine bottles throughout the country. The switch to marijuana occurred around 1910, at the time of the Mexican Revolution. The war displaced thousands of Mexican peasants, who migrated to the American south and brought with them “mariguana.”

The influx of migrants was met with prejudice, and according to one analyst, that prejudice led to the change in terminology.

In an effort to marginalize the new migrant population, the first anti-cannabis laws were targeted at the term “marijuana,” says Amanda Reiman, a policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance. Scholars say it’s no coincidence that the first U.S. cities to outlaw pot were in border states. It is widely believed that El Paso, Texas, was the first U.S. city to ban cannabis, when it approved a measure in 1914 prohibiting the sale or possession of the drug.

The use of the term marijuana was soon codified in U.S. law. The first American Drug Czar Harry J. Anslinger was instrumental in outlawing cannabis and he preferred the term “marihuana.” In 1937 Congress passed the “Marihuana Tax Act.” Anslinger testified in favor of the bill, but even at that time, there was dispute over the use of the term marijuana. Dr. William C. Woodward, representing the American Medical Association presented the following testimony to Congress:

There is nothing in the medicinal use of cannabis that has any relation to Cannabis addiction. I use the word “cannabis” in preference to the word “marijuana”, because cannabis is the correct term for describing the plant and its products. The term “marijuana” is a mongrel word that has crept into this country over the Mexican border and has no general meaning, except as it relates to the use of cannabis preparations for smoking. It is not recognized in medicine, and hardly recognized even in the Treasury Department. Marijuana is not the correct term. It was the use of the term “marijuana” rather than the use of the term “cannabis” or the use of the term “Indian hemp” that was responsible, as you realized probably, a day or two ago, for the failure of the dealers in Indian hemp seed to connect up this bill with their business until rather late in the day. So, I shall use the word “cannabis” and I should certainly suggest that if any legislation is enacted, the term used be “cannabis” and not the mongrel word “marijuana.”

Despite the efforts of Dr. Woodward, marijuana beat out cannabis as the preferred term of the American people. In fact, the Controlled Substance Act (CSA), which is in effect to this day,  uses the term “marihuana” to define the parts of the cannabis plant that are prohibited. See 21 U.S.C.A. § 802 (16). Additionally, many states also use that term in their state counterparts to the CSA. However, there does appear to be a move towards using the more scientific term cannabis. For example, Washington has elected to name the agency charged with regulating the plant the Liquor and Cannabis Board.

On this blog, we use the terms marijuana and cannabis interchangeably. This is in large part due to the fact that the public uses the terms interchangeably. We hope that this brief history will help our readers consider the implications of using various terms to refer to the same plant.

To learn more about the history of the term “weed” see this article from Civilized Life.

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