Is the Word ‘Marijuana’ Racist? | The History of the Word Marijuana


Weed, pot, mary jane, marijuana, bud, catnip, trees, flower, and kush are just a few of the many alternative names for cannabis. You may have heard of all of these and more, but did you know marijuana is a nick-name that was adopted to further oppress people of color (predominantly black people and Mexicans)?

Marijuana is described in many ways. Some say that it refers to the entire cannabis plant while others say that marijuana is just the parts of the cannabis plant that has tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in it. The first records of the use of cannabis date way back to ancient Asia around 500 B.C! After that, it was slowly introduced across the world over a long period since the plant was easy to cultivate and extremely fast-growing. Hemp fiber, as we know here at Hemp Helps, is used for a wide variety of things. In the early 1600s in colonial America, you had to have some kind of hemp on your farm to survive. 

When the first term was introduced to the US in the 1930s, it was often spelled as “marihuanna” or “mariguanna.” According to the oxford dictionary, the term may come from the “nahuatl mallihan” which means “prisoner.” Although this is not officially known, we delve back into the early 1900s and see where we started using this term and what purpose it served for its time. 


At this time in America, cannabis was used in over the counter medications. There was no word like “marijuana,” and the general public only knew it as cannabis, an ingredient in medicine. Moving into the 1900s, many elite/high-class Americans started participating in a trend called “hashish.” This was made popular by celebrities and authors alike, a notable one being Alexander Dumas, a french author. Hashish was taking the concentrated resin of the cannabis plant and consuming it through eating, drinking, or smoking it. 


During the Mexican Civil War, which started in 1910, many Mexican people sought refuge from the horrors of war in their country. From 1910-1920 over 890,000 Mexicans legally immigrated into the United States of America. During this time, cannabis was used as an ingredient, and the idea of smoking it recreationally wasn’t extremely popular. Some people who immigrated introduced recreationally smoking, but it was still in the early stages of popularity. 


Rumors of “locoweed” started to spread across the papers in the U.S. Stories were fabricated to demonize Mexicans and black people, saying that they want to corrupt our white children with this drug that makes them crazy and violent. This is when the first bill to ban “locoweed” was introduced in the state of California. It was more directed towards the opioid and pharmaceutical abuse that was happening, but they were able to slip in bans towards this mysterious “locoweed.” 


The great depression had just hit the United States, and people were looking for someone to blame. With the recent mass immigration and the rise of jazz music (yes… people thought jazz music was the devil’s music), people started looking at people of color to blame for everything. At this time, there were many stories about “locoweed” that was brought over by Mexicans that will corrupt the white youth and make them crazy aggressive. An example of how white people used this drug to oppress and demonize POC is this 1925 The New York Times Article: “Mexican, Crazed by Marihuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife!”. The story was utterly fabricated and started the tailspin of rumors and false facts of cannabis. 

At this time, Harry Anslinger started running his campaign for the Bureau of Narcotics, one of the significant factors that played into the outlaw of cannabis. He was the dominant player that introduced “Marijuana” to the general public before it was just known as cannabis. It’s important here to note that he intentionally called it marijuana to add the scary “exotic” factor that he knew would add fear to those afraid and angry about the recent mass immigration.

Anslinger testified before 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.”

In another statement, Anslinger explained, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”

As you can see, his campaign was built on the fear and hatred of people of color, which is why we would consider marijuana a racist term. 


After several years of building this campaign, The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed. This means that it criminalized the cannabis plant in every US state. On top of this, the Tax Act of 1937 added a $1 tax to anyone who sold or cultivated the plant. In 2019, $1 is equivalent to $15.36. That explains why almost everyone was forced to stop growing and selling it because it became too expensive for what it was worth.


The ‘War on Drugs’ became the main factor leading the US into ‘The Controlled Substance Act of 1970”. Richard Nixon repealed the Marihuana Tax Act and added cannabis to the Schedule I drug list, including heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. In 1972 a report from the National Commission on Marijuana and Drugs released a report titled “Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding.” This report explained how the marijuana was not as dangerous as they made it out to be and suggested doing a partial prohibition which would lower penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. However, Nixon and other government officials chose to ignore it and ignore all of the report’s findings. 


As of 2019, many US states have been challenging the laws on cannabis and have been moving forward to legalize it once more. After the Farm Bill of 2018, hemp became legal again, which made the hemp and CBD industry spike. You can click HERE to see an updated map of the current legality of cannabis in your state. 


If you look at the history behind the term marijuana, it isn’t pretty. With racist roots and originally used to oppress minorities, no wonder so many people are calling to start using the term cannabis solely. On the flip side, many people claim that the term has developed away from its racist history and getting rid of the term will just discredit what part Mexicans had in the cultivation of it. What are your thoughts? Is marijuana’s racist history enough to stop using it now? Or has it moved past that and become its own thing that now there is no reason to stray from the term.

Let us know what you think below!