Say What? Why ‘Cannabis’ Is Rising and ‘Marijuana’ Is Fading

Published on May 29, 2017 · Last updated July 28, 2020
Anthony Hampton demonstrates in favor of medical marijuana, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011 in Las Vegas. About 25 people protested outside the Federal building in response to recent federal raids on dispensaries, cultivators and referral services in Nevada and Michigan. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

During alcohol prohibition, you could get zozzled at a juice joint. Half-screwed, half-shot, half-seas over. You could have the heebie jeebies, the screaming meemies, the whoops and jingles. You could burn with a low blue flame. You could be squiffy, scrooched, and sprung. Slopped to the ears. Stewed to the gills. Fried to the hat.

A lexical shift is happening around the word cannabis. It's a term that’s changing social norms, business, law, and government.

It sounds dated now, and a little ridiculous, but the social vocabulary around drinking was rich and vibrant and filled with creativity. It was also short-lived. With language, what’s considered correct changes over time. New words become introduced, or borrowed, or invented, while others become endangered and lost, or dwindled down to a regional specificity, or fall out of favor socially.

The weight and meaning of words changes and adapts because language changes and adapts, and right now a lexical shift is occurring around cannabis. There’s a propagation of terminology that’s emanating not just from changing social norms, but business, law, and government.

From ‘Mariguana’ to ‘Marihuana’ to ‘Marijuana’

In recent history “marijuana” has enjoyed a prominent position in the North American lexicon, but that wasn’t always the case.

Early in the 20th century, the plant was known by its botanical name, cannabis. Marijuana is a derivative of the term mariguana, a nickname for the plant that was popular among Mexicans who migrated to America after the Mexican Revolution.


Hearst: Connected ‘marijuana’ and fear

That term was eventually exploited through the work of two men: Harry Anslinger, the director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962; and William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper publisher who was worried about the effect this new plant could have on his timber investments.

Together, this duo triggered marijuana’s lexical ascendancy.

Wait, Marijuana Invented Jazz?

Hearst, who had hundreds of newspapers at his disposal, filled his pages with racist propaganda about “marijuana” the “killer weed,” while Anslinger traveled across the country, prevaricating, propagandizing, and stoking fear to ensure that his legislation, the Marijuana Tax Act, would be passed.

“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind,” Anslinger testified before Congress. ‘Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage.”

Hearst and Aslinger were unrelenting in their ignorance, spouting lunacy and purposely distorting the conversation for their own self-interest. It was bigoted and biased, but it worked. The populace was fooled. In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act (spelled “Marihuana” at the time) was passed and the term marijuana was codified into law.

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Canna-Wellness in the 2010s

“Words carry positive and negative values,” says Frank Nuessel, a professor of Spanish, Italian and Linguistics at the University of Louisville. “And the word marijuana carries all sorts of negative, pejorative connotations.”

In April, Neussel published a paper that considers the linguistic aspects of the names for marijuana dispensaries in Colorado. Nuessel found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the dispensaries most favored names that alluded to the medicinal benefits of cannabis.

Do People Search for Cannabis, Marijuana, or Weed in Google?

The term “wellness” was most popular, while words like “medical,”“health,” and “healing” were also prominent. References to naturalness followed (“herbal,” “organic,” “earth”). As for the plant itself, the most popular descriptor was “green,” followed by “leaf” and “grass.”

Marijuana carries lexical baggage that these words do not. They represent a shift in the conversation around cannabis, a focus on its medicinal legitimacy and an improved understanding of its benefits. These are also the words that people are responding to.

What ‘Cannabis’ Can Signify

Sean Clancy is a trademark lawyer in Portland, Oregon, specializing in the cannabis industry. He fields queries and works with business owners regarding the names of their companies and products. “I definitely see the way people are re-thinking language around cannabis,” he says. “Cannabis is the word that advocates are trying to go with. The more liberal, progressive people that are against prohibition and moving towards legalization, they have learned that they should be, and are, using the term cannabis.”


Nobody ever got called a ‘cannabis-head.’

Clancy has observed a mad dash for certain terminology, the words business owners view as having the most valuable real estate, linguistically. This includes portmanteaus of “canna.”

“There’s definitely a landrush,” he says. “All these businesses start and they think they are going to be the canna-business or the canna-grower, but businesses with that term in their name are a dime a dozen.”

You Work in the WHAT Industry?

While there’s a scramble towards “cannabis” in the business world, socially and colloquially, cannabis still has a long way to go if it is to replace marijuana. “It will take some time before the perception of the word marijuana is changed,” Nuessel says. “I don’t know how many people have the word ‘cannabis’ in their active vocabulary, or if they would even recognize it.”

Clancy, who uses the term cannabis most frequently but will use marijuana depending on his audience, has run into this problem. “If I go to lawyer networking events and interact with other stodgy lawyers and say I work in the cannabis industry, they’ll say ‘what?’ Then I’ll say ‘marijuana’ and they’ll get it.”

Meet the Congressional Cannabis Caucus

The evolution of terminology is also playing out politically. Amid the uncertainty of cannabis laws under the Trump administration, in February, at the U.S. Capitol, the Congressional Cannabis Caucus was launched—not the Congressional Marijuana Caucus. Included in their mandate is passing legislation that enables cannabis research, working with banks and cannabis businesses, and bridging partisan divide regarding cannabis.

“Politicians that are more prohibitionist definitely use the word marijuana,” Clancy says. “If somebody is using the term ‘cannabis’, I almost make the assumption that they are slightly more educated on the issue than if they are only using the term ‘marijuana’. Usually you hear the term ‘marijuana’ in a disparaging way. Or they are trying to raise the specter of crime and criminality.”

Canada Likes ‘Cannabis’

In Canada, the Liberal government continues to move forward with its legalization plans. Recently, a press conference was held where the government outlined its plans for legalization and took questions from the media. Those questions were peppered with mixed terminology—marijuana, pot, weed—but the politicians showed remarkable, purposeful restraint. In every answer, for nearly an hour, they responded using only the term “cannabis.”

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers questions from students at Havana University in Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016. Trudeau is on an official visit to Cuba. (Enrique De La Osa, Pool photo via AP)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: His government uses ‘cannabis’ exclusively. (Enrique De La Osa, Pool photo via AP)

“The Government of Canada deems that it is more appropriate to use the term ‘cannabis’ when engaging in a serious discussion about the new legal framework that would legalize, strictly regulate and restrict access to cannabis,” explains Liberal party spokesperson Gary Holub. Marijuana, Holub says, “is a term that is not scientifically precise.”

For cannabis advocates, this realization, after nearly a century of prohibition, is a welcomed change. “I’m glad they’re using “cannabis”—that’s the correct name of the plant—and it begins the process of telling the truth about this substance, which has been shrouded in myth and misinformation for far too long,” Craig Jones, the executive director of The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Canada, writes in an email.

“Most other names were originally terms of derision or abuse—so I’m fine with the use of cannabis. About time.”

Just as marijuana was once codified into law in America, changing the tone and tenor of the conversation, Canada is now experiencing its own lexical shift. It remains to be seen what broader changes will come as a result, but the groundwork is being laid.

The Canadian legislation that would legalize cannabis nationwide is proposed to go in effect next July.

The name of the statute?

The Cannabis Act.

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Sam Riches
Sam Riches
Sam Riches is a writer and journalist in Toronto. His work can be found in Vice, Pacific Standard, Wired, and many other publications.
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