Why do we use the term “marijuana” so freely and abundantly?
The word “marijuana” or “marihuana” in the 1930’s was a word that expressed contempt and disapproval for the plant which has played a key role in creating the negative stigma that still tragically clings to this holistic, herbal medicine. Most cannabis users today recognize the “M word” as offensive, once they learn of its racist history.
If we instead use the word cannabis, it is a respectful, scientific term that encompasses all the many different aspects and uses of the plant.
“Marijuana’s” racist history
The “marijuana” word started off as a Mexican folk name for cannabis, but was first popularized in the US by the notorious yellow press publisher, William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was a racist, as well as being committed to the prohibition of marijuana, which threatened his timber investments. He used his control of hundreds of newspapers to orchestrate a vicious propaganda campaign against cannabis, which featured lurid (and false) stories about black and brown men committing outrageous acts of murder and mayhem. That campaign played on then-predominantly racist public opinion to make cannabis illegal at the federal level in 1937.
This stigma has played a big part in stymying cannabis legalization efforts throughout the U.S.
As the nation’s nearly 80-year history of pot prohibition slowly begins to crumble, starting with Colorado’s recent implementation of taxed and legalized recreational marijuana, critics of the increasingly popular policy shift are jumping to denounce the move. A number of white pundits and newspaper columnists have been among the most vocal, claiming that marijuana must remain illegal, despite their own prior use of it, because it supposedly makes people dumber.
The columns themselves served as the most persuasive evidence of that point. And while such a correlation between pot use and intelligence has yet to be proven, one must be willing to ignore the racist roots of marijuana prohibition and the manner in which this unjust system of anti-drug enforcement still plays out today to make such a shallow argument in the first place.
In a column for The Fix, Maia Szalavitz reminds us that Harry Anslinger, the father of the war on cannabis, fully embraced racism as a tool to demonize marijuana. As the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a predecessor to the Drug Enforcement Administration, Anslinger institutionalized his belief that pot’s “effect on the degenerate races” made its prohibition a top priority. Here are just a few of his most famous (and most racist) quotes:
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.” “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
Between Anslinger’s ruminations on the need to keep marijuana away from minorities — especially the entertainers! — were countless other fabrications about the health effects of pot. It was “more dangerous than heroin or cocaine” and “leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing,” he claimed.
“If the hideous monster Frankenstein came face to face with marijuana, he would drop dead of fright,”
Anslinger declared in a line that underscored the type of extreme anti-marijuana hysteria that served as a catalyst for the 1936 propaganda film “Reefer Madness.”
Anslinger was not only a prohibitionist, he was the epitome of a con artist and liar. As the drug war got going in the early 20th century, the bureau published surveys showing its efforts to combat drug use had led to dramatic declines over the decade of the 1920s. But drug historian David Courtwright, through a Freedom of Information Act request, got his hands on the actual surveys and found the data to have been fabricated. He also found a private memo from Anslinger admitting the numbers were made up. Nevertheless, Anslinger used that success to argue for an expansion of the drug war to weed in 1937.
Words define us and our history
Language is important because it defines our ideas. Words have a power that transcends their formal meaning. When we change words, we can also change the thoughts that underlie them. By changing the words we use to describe cannabis and herbal medicine, we can help our fellow citizens understand the truth about it, and see through the decades of propaganda.
Let us all vow, people who use, are proponents of, and respect cannabis for all of its many resourceful uses, and its miraculous abilities, to strike the racist ‘M’ word from our vocabulary, and begin to foster in a new era in which we give cannabis the respect it truly deserves.
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