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The Origin of the Word ‘Marijuana’

March 6, 2014

The word “marijuana” plays a controversial role in cannabis culture. Many well-known organizations such as Oakland’s Harborside Heath Center have publicly denounced “the M word” in favor of our favorite plant’s Latinate name, cannabis. Even Salon Magazine, a major press outlet outside of the cannabis industry, published an article titled “Is the word ‘Marijuana’ racist?” last year.

As mainstream culture becomes a little more herb-friendly, the terminology used by the industry is coming to center stage. But, why exactly does the term “marijuana” cause so much debate? Even worse, why has the word gained publicity as a racist term?

To save you from reading those lengthy history books or some boring academic articles, we’ve created this brief timeline to give you the low-down on “marijuana”’s rise to popularity in the United States. Here’s what you need to know:

The Mexican Revolution

1840-1900:

Prior to 1910, “marijuana” didn’t exist as a word in American culture. Rather, “cannabis” was used, most often in reference to medicines and remedies for common household ailments. In the early 1900s, what have now become pharmaceutical giants—Bristol-Meyer’s Squib and Eli Lilly—used to include cannabis and cannabis extracts in their medicines.

During this time, Americans (particularly elite Americans) were going through a hashish trend. Glamorized by literary celebrities such as Alexander Dumas, experimenting with cannabis products became a fad among those wealthy enough to afford imported goods.

1910:

Between the years of 1910 and 1920, over 890,000 Mexicans legally immigrated into the United States seeking refuge from the wreckage of civil war. Though cannabis had been a part of U.S. history since the country’s beginnings, the idea of smoking the plant recreationally was not as common as other forms of consumption. The idea of smoking cannabis entered mainstream American consciousness after the arrival of immigrants who brought the smoking habit with them.

1913:

The first bill criminalizing the cultivation of “locoweed” was passed in California. The bill was a major push from the Board of Pharmacy as a way to regulate opiates and psychoactive pharmaceuticals, and seemingly did not stem from the “reefer madness” or racialized understanding of “marijuana” that paved the way to full-on prohibition in the 1930s.

The Aftermath

1930s:

The Great Depression had just hit the United States, and Americans were searching for someone to blame. Due to the influx of immigrants (particularly in the South) and the rise of suggestive jazz music, many white Americans began to treat cannabis (and, arguably, the black people and Mexican immigrants who consumed it) as a foreign substance used to corrupt the minds and bodies of low-class individuals.

In the time just before the federal criminalization of the plant, 29 states independently banned the herb that came to be known as “marijuana.”

Harry Anslinger: 

It would not be an overstatement to say that Harry Anslinger was one of the primary individuals responsible for creating the stigma surrounding cannabis. Hired as the first director of the recently created Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, Anslinger launched a vigilant campaign against cannabis that would hold steady for the three decades he remained in office.

A very outspoken man, Anslinger used the recent development of the movie theater to spread messages that racialized the plant for white audiences. In one documented incident, Anslinger testified before Congress, explaining:

“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 articulated: “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”

In retrospect, Anslinger’s efforts with the Bureau of Narcotics were the reason “marijuana” became a word known by Americans all over the country. When making public appearances and crafting propaganda films such as Reefer Madness, Anslinger specifically used the term “marijuana” when campaigning against the plant, adding to the development of the herb’s new “foreign” identity.

Cannabis was no longer the plant substance found in medicines and consumed unanimously by American’s all over the country.

1937:

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was the culmination of Anslinger’s work and the first step to all-out prohibition. The bill federally criminalized the cannabis plant in every U.S. state. In order to discourage the production of cannabis use, the Tax Act of 1937 placed a one dollar tax on anyone who sold or cultivated the cannabis plant.

On top of the tax itself, the bill mandated that all individuals comply with certain enforcement provisions. Violation of the provisions would result in imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $2,000.

Though the word “marijuana” is the most common name for cannabis in the United States today, its history is deeply steeped in race, politics, and a complicated cultural revolution. Some argue that using the word ignores a history of oppression against Mexican immigrants and African Americans, while others insist that the term has now lost its prejudiced bite. Regardless of whether or not you decide to use the word yourself, it’s impossible to deny the magnitude and racial implications of its introduction to the American lexicon.

  • peacecmk

    As a member of the non-partisan citizen’s movement, FLORIDIANS FOR FREEDOM, I am going to have to agree that “cannabis” is the better term to use, rather than “marijuana” which evidence does suggest was a pejorative term, meant to cast negative aspersions upon both cannabis and the Mexican people, who commonly continued to use it in the U.S. after they immigrated here after 1910. In fact, so many people in this group felt that a return back to the original name of “cannabis” used by everyone around the world before 1930 was more appropriate in the title of our new constitutional law, RIGHT OF ADULTS TO CANNABIS.

    Citizens residing from all parts of our state decided we could wait no longer for our inept or ineffective or corrupt Florida politicians to pass intelligent legal cannabis laws a year ago, and formed FLORIDIANS FOR FREEDOM which is organized on a statewide basis to create and pass a state constitutional amendment ballot initiative, RIGHT OF ADULTS TO CANNABIS. This new constitutional amendment will be Voted upon by all Florida Voters two years from now, on November 6, 2018, to follow our MEDICAL MARIJUANA AMENDMENT II Florida Constitutional Amendment which we expect to pass in this election cycle, in November of 2016.

    The Medical Marijuana Act will help hundreds of thousands of people throughout the State of Florida, but unfortunately it may be too little, too late and not enough people will be helped as could have been with a complete legal cannabis bill. Many of us support this attempt to help patients now, despite several shortcomings like the long wait times to receive cannabis medicine, and the push to make cannabis solely a pharmaceutical product, rather than a complete cure from cannabis, using the whole plant,, itself.

    It is one of the major reasons we followed behind with our RIGHT OF ADULTS TO CANNABIS constitutional amendment ballot initiative petition, which states that all adults in Florida over the age of twenty-one have the right to possess, use and grow cannabis for personal use, on private property, and within the privacy of your own home.

    Check us out on our Facebook pages, the statewide group FLORIDIANS FOR FREEDOM and our local county branch groups, FLORIDIANS FOR FREEDOM ALACHUA COUNTY CHAPTER or our MARION COUNTY CHAPTER. Next month, we expect have a FLORIDIANS FOR FREEDOM LEVY COUNTY CHAPTER, A FFF CITRUS COUNTY CHAPTER and LAKE and SUMTER COUNTY CHAPTERS up and running freely!

    Our next North Central Florida meeting is being held in Gainesville, Florida this coming Wednesday evening, September 14, 2016, at the Alachua County MILLHOPPER LIBRARY (in Room B, between 7:00 PM and 8:00 PM) located at 3145 NW 43rd Street, Gainesville, Florida

    Come join us or “friend” us on our Facebook Page. You can print out and sign a petition at floridiansforfreedom.com

    Hope to see you this Wednesday evening!

  • wordsforthewise

    yeah it’d be nice to see some official documents with anslinger quotes

    • ProfStar

      Google it… I just looked and found this among the 24,400 results. There are many others out there. This guy was a nut job…
      read a few quotes here: http://www.azquotes.com/author/23159-Harry_J_Anslinger

      • wordsforthewise

        Are you serious? Absolutely ZERO of any of those quotes provide a reference, even a weak-ass blog post or anything. I want to see a quote from a newspaper article or something more reliable than a random website where users can submit any damn quote they please.

      • Arturis Dentalis

        They are not primary sources. There doesn’t seem to be any primary source for the quote about ‘darkies’, which unfortunately weakens the effect of the above article.

        • Brian Hull

          Primary sources for agents of government are not hard to find, unless the quotes are made up.

  • randolini

    Good old Harry S. I bet Satan had a special place reserved for this horrible excuse for a human. It was all about money then just as now.

    • truthbetold459

      “Satan” are kidding us? Who believes that Satan exists any more? Wow, 2017 is the year, and some people still believe in total non sense.

      • randolini

        You’re not to good with sarcasm are you. I quit believing in the nonsense in the bible many years ago and i’m not afraid of snakes, but can you deny the evil that “we the people” face daily.

        • Adam J Kraker

          Admit it. You never did believe. That’s OK, it’s your right but just be honest about it.

          • randolini

            Like most children in America, I was in church at a very young age and just as the Navy tried to brainwash me on the dangers of drugs, the church tried to brainwash me about God and Jebus. As I grew older and realized how many religions there were and how many Gods there were, I sat down and read the bible cover to cover. Most people I know that are nonbelievers took time to read the bible before they lost faith. Most people who fall for the nonsense have never read the bible. After looking around at the horrible sh*t people do in the name of religion, I woke the hell up. When you are a child you believe in many things. Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, etc. As you get older, you find you are being lied to. Look at pro lifers. They harass these poor women and after the child is a real life, they are no where to be found. They are pro fetus, not pro life. They don’t give a damn about the child or the mother after the child is born. Religion is big business in murica and these high rolling preachers don’t pay taxes. Nice gig,eh.

      • John Brogan

        Satan is the Cat that hangs around hell. Hell is a place if U die and find yourself there, and run into Jerry Falwell, and got to stay for eternity…U found it your in Hell!

      • Nancy Spinney

        you will believe it when you get there! HELL i mean where satan and his band of evil fallen angels are, it is real and you best turn to GOD now before it is too late

  • Mr Green

    Marijuana. I read somewhere the word Marijuana originates from Mexico and is a combination of two women’s names, Maria and Juanita. Two women that make you happy. Hey it works for me. A very happy New Jersey Medical Marijuana Patient. Peace Always

  • Nikoloz Kavtaradze

    We call it #Plan post #soviet Union

  • ProfStar

    A few are wondering if the Anslinger quotes are accurate. It’s easily checked by searching through the congressional record. Otherwise, there are 25,400 Google pages you can search through and read. To make it easy I’ve included the first page from my search results.

    https://www.google.com/search?q=anslinger+quotes&oq=anslinger+quotes&aqs=chrome..69i57.2469j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

    This guy was a racist with an agenda… Dangerous and illegal by today’s standards. Still, all Cannabis laws revolve around his initial construct of why Cannabis is a terrible, dangerous thing. Though only one reason, it is reason enough to abolish these laws.

    BTW, Peacecmk… We all wish your organization’s effort great success. I would live in Fla if these absurd laws were abolished. People have a right to make their decisions. It’s called Freedom…

    • Gorgon_Hilldusa

      so in other words, you couldn’t find any actual sources to prove he said those things, but still wanted to make it look like you did. good job.

      • Bud BB

        You need a source to believe it?
        Some people are so willfully ignorant, it’s embarrassing, tbh.
        What are you, a distant relative defending a dead man?
        Proof of the likelihood of such gross remarks were……I don’t know…..maybe the racially oppressive Era he lived in……… Or the racially destructive laws that followed.

        None of what was said was far fetched if you look at the policies and sentiments that ALREADY existed towards people of color at that time, and the ridiculously targeted Drug Laws that resulted from Mr Anslinger’s little crusade for nearly a century later.

        Put down whatever you’re smoking and stop looking for people to prove what’s already obvious and widely accepted as fact.

  • High Bond

    Love to read about history, knowledge gives us power.

    • Gorgon_Hilldusa

      except that many of the more extreme quotes attributed to Harry Anslinger in the article have absolutely no source and therefore no basis in fact. maybe you should say ‘spreading lies gives us power’?

  • Gorgon_Hilldusa

    nice use of several completely unsourced and therefore probably UNTRUE quotes to make your case.
    “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men”
    there is no source for that, nor some of the other quotes you’re using here. linking to some other article from 2006 doesn’t count. all it counts as is you spreading lies that have no factual basis. guess that’s typical of modern day liberal ‘reporting’ and ‘journalism’, though.

    • roadnurse

      Can you look them up too then? Help us find them?

    • Janet Maurice

      Yo – woman – READ THIS ALL THE WAY THROUGH – Click into the sources and stop with the ranting republican BS. Good try, but no cigar. Next time, do your homework instead of spewing bias. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_J._Anslinger#cite_note-20

  • Chris Bodragon

    I read this article because of the title. I am still clueless as to the origin of the word “marijuana”.
    I mean, where did Harry Anslinger get the word from?
    What does it mean? It sounds Spanish. Is the literal translation really “Mary Jane”?

  • hotrats

    Many of the legislators who voted for the Marijuana Tax Act were unaware that exotic ‘marijuana’ was in fact just everyday hemp, which at the time was a huge industry, using its fibres for making durable fabric, and its seed oil for paints and varnishes, and those with agricultural interests and investments were very upset when they found out.

  • NoneOf YourBusiness

    Mary, do you Wanna? Maybe I am right, but I believe one example that it
    means Marginalizing Mexicans (Tijuana). So I will never use that M
    word again, if I slip, I will come back to cannabis immediately. If I
    hear someone use the M word, I will tell them what I read, maybe they
    will not use it anymore, maybe not. JOKE….I heard a joke that the
    biggest user of CANNABIS, died and went to hell. (for the religious
    believers) When he got there, there was no fire and he went and saw the
    Devil, the Devil assured him there was no fire in Hell. So the user
    went on his way and came upon the most beautiful field full of mature
    budding Cannabis, to which he immediately rolled the biggest joint he
    had ever rolled. He asked everyone for a light and then went back to
    the Devil, to which he replied, There is no Fire in Hell. So the user
    really was in his Hell. Canadian user with medical cards, looking
    forward to dispensery machines in 2018, thanks Justin. Let’s stop
    ruining our young mens’ lives for smoking a plant. Let’s take this out
    of the hands of the police, whom decide, who will pay for the rest of
    their lives and who won’t, like a neighbours son. Yous have ruined my
    life because of a witchhunt and redid it 2 years ago. 58 year old
    Canadian. How will you judge me then, father, when it is legalized,
    like your alcohol. The one thing that you judged me for, now legal.
    You father fell in the trap of refer madness. I judged you for being so
    gullabull and haven’t had a relationship with you for 37 years and you
    never understood why. Many of your family had serious eye problems, but
    you had 20/20 vision but were the blindest of them all.

  • Steve Sides

    This article, titled “The Origin of the Word ‘Marijuana’”, never explains where the term “marijuana” originated. It only seems to describe that the smoking of marijuana arrived with the Mexican immigrants and demonized those in American who tried to block that, but does not ever actually discuss where the word “marijuana” came from. What does it mean? What is the origin of the word? Not a good article.

    • From what I’ve learned the word marijuana was created by taking the 2 most common names in Mexico…Maria and Juan, put together gives you marijuana.
      .

      • srcarruth

        that doesn’t make any sense. why would people name a plant after two common first names?

        • It’s actually cool that you DON’T get it…it means you’re not a racist. Picture, if you will, hard working Mexicans coming across the border to find a better life, and instead of having a couple of cold beers after work they have a joint. Some politicians back then who didn’t like Mexicans started to relate the two together (damn dope smoking Mexicans.) Soon it was decided to label the pot with Mexico’s two most common names…so now it is a racist word…get it? My partner is Mexican and he told me that they used to call it mota.

        • distachio

          The word was coined as psychological suggestion — a reference to immigrants who were said to be bringing it in.

          • Helstorm

            “According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term may come from the Nahuatl mallihuan, meaning “prisoner”.[8] Author Martin Booth notes that this etymology was popularized by Harry J. Anslinger in the 1930s, during his campaigns against the drug.[10] However, linguist Jason D. Haugen finds no semantic basis for a connection to mallihuan, suggesting that the phonetic similarity may be “a case of accidental homophony”.[11]:94 Cannabis is not known to have been present in the Americas before Spanish contact, making an indigenous word an unlikely source.[12]

            Other suggestions trace the possible origins of the word to Chinese ma ren hua (麻仁花, lit. ‘hemp seed flower’), possibly itself originating as a loan from an earlier semitic root *mrj “hemp”.[13] The Semitic root is also found in the Spanish word mejorana and in English marjoram (‘oregano’), which could be related to the word marihuana. This is also known in Mexico as “Chinese oregano”.[12]

            Additionally, traditional association with the personal name María Juana (‘Mary Jane’) is probably a folk etymology. The original Mexican Spanish used forms with the letter ⟨h⟩ (marihuana), and is famously used in the Mexican Revolutionary era (1910-1920) version of the lyrics of La Cucaracha. Forms using the letter ⟨j⟩ (marijuana) seem to be an innovation of English, and their later appearance in French and Spanish are probably due to English influence.[8][14]”

      • George Gilks

        My understanding is that adding an “a” to the end of Juan makes it female. Juan = John, Juana = Jane. Hence the hippie term Mary Jane, the English translation of Marijuana. Originally Juana was misspelled, using an h instead of a J, as in marihuana, obviously not a Spanish speaking person, a Spaniard would never spell Juana with an h. As an example, my name is George, in Spanish it is spelled Jorge and is pronounced hor-hay. A Spanish speaking person told me that, jokingly added “Think of a whore lying in the hay” lol 😁

    • srcarruth
  • Jovan Blom

    I object mainly to it being called “weed”.

    • To me, “weed” is a nice, informal (and one-syllable) way of referring to cannabis. “Marijuana” on the other is harder to say (and spell) than cannabis, is inaccurate, and is only in popular usage because off our government’s near-century-long propaganda campaign against this flower.

      • Jovan Blom

        yeah, i’ve seen it that way too, since…

      • Jovan Blom

        Several times, actually…

      • Daniel Swinney

        Ha, just reading comments and look who it is!

    • moonlit

      why? Weeds (wild flowers) are beautiful like daises, violets and black eyed suzies.

  • TED deguzman

    With the advent of legalization of every form and level of this manna from heaven plant, let us honor it by addressing it by its formal name:CANNABIS.

  • roadnurse

    I have to go see my patients and pick up my kids, but when I get back I will add to this. Currently taking a certified medical course on this.

    conference on cannabis sativa Jan 14, 1937 transcripts: http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/hemp/taxact/canncon.htm

    Written by Anslinger: http://www.redhousebooks.com/galleries/assassin.htm, You can get a bit of history here also or buy the book: https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=eVU_4QMn2kAC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=angslinger+marijuana&ots=f5sw2SXxae&sig=5OOs1vBS0mNp00s4q9lDRQx41Fo#v=onepage&q=angslinger%20marijuana&f=false, You can create a free account on Jstor and read this law journal: Bonnie, R., & Whitebread, C. (1970). The Forbidden Fruit and the Tree of Knowledge: An Inquiry into the Legal History of American Marijuana Prohibition. Virginia Law Review, 56(6), 971-1203. doi:10.2307/1071903, excellent book written by researcher and scientist: https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=r9wPbxMAG8cC&oi=fnd&pg=PA49&dq=origin+of+the+term+marijuana&ots=TsdHw3Hkzv&sig=DGLGukVpOUdll3fOkjnNOx1g43Um , abstract: https://www.ncjrs.gov/App/Publications/abstract.aspx?ID=185042, document here: https://faculty.unlv.edu/mccorkle/www/Opium,%20Cocaine%20and%20Marijuana%20in%20American%20History.pdf, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01639625.2013.766548?scroll=top&needAccess=true,

  • roadnurse

    Also you can have a look at this with its supporting documents: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marijuana_(word), but this also is pretty comprehensive for word origin: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/07/14/201981025/the-mysterious-history-of-marijuana, here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_J._Anslinger, It is indeed difficult to find the origins of some of these quotes. I have emailed some contacts to see if I can find it.
    Some of the sources for the quotes are not confirmed, look at this dialogue here:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk%3AHarry_J._Anslinger

  • Wen Vancouwen

    OK. I totally get it now. When a thing is thought to be bad, we use a Mexican word. If we change our minds and start to think that thing is good, we can’t use the Mexican word—no, we have to change to using the Greek word. Man, that is so-o-o racist.

  • Charlie Dudley

    Ok……after sitting here for about an hour reading all of the various comments pertaining to “marijuana” (sorry Salon, I’m not racist), I can’t help but wonder what the big deal is. I don’t hear the term “marijuana” much anymore. Never heard of the name being “racist”. Who ever came up with that idea (racist word) needs to find something much more productive to do. As far as I’m concerned, it’s much ado about nothing. Some of these in-depth conversations is telling me that the majority of you have already smoked a bowl or two and are borderline to not remembering your name or where you’re at. I’m sure Cheech and Chong don’t find the word ‘racist’. I’m also sure that if we all have a gigantic group hug, fire one up, turn up the radio and remember the late great Tom Petty- – – “let’s get to the point and roll another joint….” Can’t we all just get along and leave politics out of the issue? I guarantee you, 99.8% of all user’s don’t give a sh*t what it’s called. OK everybody, let’s light ’em up and celebrate all the big $$$$$$$ revenue to be made from “Reefer Madness”.

  • Brian Hull

    Giant hole in your article, you forgot to mention where the word itself originally came from, and who originally used it. Is that because it doesn’t fit your narrative?

    • Joe Phillips

      It literally just came from Mexican immigrants who called it “mariguana” and what followed is pretty self explanatory.

  • Pork McShutty

    given that the spanish (in fact all explorers during the colonial age) always seemed to name great things after their kings and queens, as a form of honroing them, isnt it at least plausible that, upon finding the herb in the america’s, whilst stoned a few spaniards said, “hey man, this is some good chit, we should name it after Queen Maria and King Juan, dont yo think? then they will let us import it and become rich…what you say Pablo??” And the first drug kingpins were born! OK that may be total BS, but it makes sense!

  • Anuar Villanueva

    Mexican here. We call it marijuana here too and no one gets
    flabbergasted at the mention of the word. That´s because no one cares. I
    mean how few problems do you have that you´re concerned with the usage of the word marijuana?

  • tech-news.tv

    All over the world where Cannabis is illegal, Governments are changing the definition of the word “cannabis”. Here in Australia “Cannabis” need not include Cannabis or even come
    from a plant. The UK is about to do the same. It used to be they called it medical Cannabis so marijuana is a safer word.

  • JBL2020

    Regardless of the origin of “marijuana” (likely Mexico – literally translated it means “foreign woman”, with “huana” a Chinese word for “foreigner” likely imported with Cannabis from Asia) there has been a line of thought that Anslinger likely decided to use “marijuana” or “marihuana” because it sounds like “mary wanna”.

    In Anslinger’s likely intended context: “Mary, wanna toke on this?” would be a not so subtle means of implying Black & Mexican men were luring and corrupting young White women into debauchery by smoking the plant. Look no further than the propaganda poster for “Devil’s Harvest” for evidence to support that.

  • Thanks for this. I am blogging about it now and will reference Leafly in the post.