top of page
  • Alec Chenkus

The History of the Word "Marijuana"

Updated: Dec 17, 2021

Marijuana vs. Cannabis
We often hear confusion concerning the difference between the terms "cannabis" and "marijuana"

The Cannabis sativa plant goes under many public names - weed, pot, ganja, the green, etc. - yet there is a specific term that has stirred controversy among cannabis advocates: the word "marijuana". But how can this be? Marijuana seems to be one of the most common terms used for cannabis, and it has become so ingrained in the public eye that most official references to cannabis, such as state agencies or state-approved medical programs, choose the name marijuana.

On its face, marijuana as a term in modern times does not necessarily denote the same negative connotation that it historically has, however, the historical basis for the term marijuana was born out of prejudiced thinking and smear campaigns.

Traveling Through History

Cannabis has been used as a medicine in America for over 150 years
Cannabis was a common treatment option in the late-18th century and early-19th century, even being added to the U.S. Pharmacopeia in 1850

Prior to 1910, the term "marijuana" did not exist in American culture. Instead, the term "cannabis" was used, most often in reference to medicines and remedies for common ailments and symptoms. Also during this time, American - primarily elite Americans - were going through a hashish trend, experimenting with cannabis products by those who could afford to import the plant.

Then, between the years of 1910 and 1920, a total of over 890,000 Mexicans legally immigrated into the U.S. while seeking refuge from the fallout of civil war. While cannabis has been a part of U.S. history since the country's origins, using cannabis recreationally was not a common form of consumption; rather, cannabis entered the mainstream after the arrival of immigrants who brought the smoking habit with them.

In 1913, the first bill criminalizing the cultivation of cannabis, referred to as "locoweed", was passed in California after a push from the Board of Pharmacy. It is important to note that this bill did not stem from the "reefer madness" that would pave the way for full-fledged prohibition in the 1930s.

Enter Harry Anslinger

It can be argued that the modern "War on Drugs" began from one man's tenacious vision: Harry Anslinger. We have covered Harry Anslinger before, but in summation, Anslinger was the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics - an agency born from the lack of crime following the prohibition era of alcohol. During the three decades that Anslinger launched his campaign against cannabis he would cozy up with world leaders to spread his hatred for the cannabis plant across the globe - a campaign that still affects today's stigmas and perceptions surrounding cannabis.

In reality, the tenacity that Anslinger felt against cannabis users was born out of ignorance and racial prejudice. Anslinger explicitly believed, "Reefer makes darkies think they're as good white men...the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on degenerate races."

Reefer Madness Poster
Reefer Madness posters were easy to come by in the 1930's during Anslinger's anti-cannabis campaign

Horrifyingly, Anslinger wore his prejudice on his sleeve, coordinating anti-cannabis marketing campaigns with the help of his friend William Randolph Hearst to create the hysteria that has become infamously known as "reefer madness". It was around this same time that Anslinger concentrated his efforts on specifically using the term "marijuana" or "marihuana" in his messaging to denote a "foreign" identity that played on the tensions surrounding racism towards Mexican citizens living in the U.S. In all practicality, it was at this moment that the medicinal term cannabis was replaced in the American conscious with the term "marijuana" designed to strike racial fear.

The final nail in the coffin for cannabis was the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, essentially serving as the first step to all-out prohibition. The bill federally criminalized the cannabis plant across the country, and discouraged the production of cannabis use. Furthermore, Anslinger would undergo a campaign to silence pro-cannabis physicians and researchers across the country, effectively outlawing the research of cannabis as a medicinal treatment option.

All-in-all, the controversy that stems from the term marijuana is based on a history of racial prejudice and stigmas created to serve the interest of one man's federal agency. Although it may seem unlikely, there are a vast number of individuals cross this country that still believe there is a difference between marijuana and cannabis, due to the lasting effects of Anslinger's anti-cannabis campaign. For this reason, a significant amount of cannabis-related businesses still use the term marijuana, whether it be to remind us of the storied history of the cannabis plant, or to attempt and retake the term from its historical origins. In this sense, intent matters: marijuana has been a historically racist term, however, as reputable brands and companies enter the emerging cannabis market, the racial history of the word is being replaced with a term of hope for patients looking to treat a range of medical conditions and symptoms.


Ohio Marijuana Card Logo
Ohio Marijuana Card

If you are an Ohioan suffering from one of these 21 medical conditions you may be eligible to treat your ailment with medical marijuana, which includes both THC and CBD products.

Click here to learn more about what Ohio Marijuana Card's state-certified medical marijuana doctors can do for you, or give us a call at (866-457-5559) and our friendly support team can walk you through the entire process, and set you up with an appointment.

Also be sure to follow us on social media for regular updates and breaking news announcements on Facebook & Instagram!


bottom of page