Weed, Marijuana, or Cannabis: Why Semantics Matter

Cannabis in a dictionary - semantics are the main differences between weed and marijuana

For the last seven decades, the cannabis sativa plant suffered drastically from a severe public relations issue. During this time, cannabis has earned a massive list of slang names and terminology which not only confuse new consumers but also carry a certain negative connotation. Today, as medical and recreational marijuana alike are gaining acceptance across the United States, it’s more important than ever to clear the air and set the record straight about the differences between weed and marijuana.

Learning from History

Prior to the 1930's, cannabis sativa tinctures were readily available as a medicinal product from the neighborhood pharmacist and a common household remedy for multiple ailments. However, when Harry J. Anslinger was stripped of his responsibilities in alcohol prohibition and appointed to lead the Federal Narcotic Bureau, he quickly shifted his target to cannabis. In order to prove the dangers of cannabis, Anslinger used whatever means necessary; including feeding on fear and prejudice.

After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, many immigrants came to the United States from Mexico, and it's an unfortunate truth that racism and prejudice were commonplace during this era. Additionally, information did not travel as quickly as it does today. Therefore, Anslinger chose to use this ignorance and fear to promote his cause.

But Mr. Anslinger didn't stop with just exploiting Mexican immigrants – with a disdain for jazz music, he was also infamous for terrorizing the black community. At one time he was quoted saying, "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."

Fake News Isn't a New Phenomenon

Using early American's fears and ignorance to advance his own agenda, Anslinger's first order of business was to create a negative connotation whenever people heard its name. Since immigrant populations were using the herb recreationally, and most Americans feared the Mexican culture, he started to call cannabis by its Mexican term, or "Marihuana".

With the cooperation of William Hearst, a newspaper giant, Anslinger used this methodology and his "Reefer Madness campaign" to launch a series of absurd headlines supposedly linking 'the new Mexican drug' to heinous crimes, a move that was highly effective at swaying public opinion. People didn't have information at their fingertips like we do today and believed the propaganda they were reading. These "Gore Files", as he called them, have since been debunked as not being related to marijuana at all.

Unfortunately, due to Anslinger's successful smear campaign against marijuana, the misconceptions about cannabis only lingered.

Sticks and Stones

Arguing against Anslinger in 1937, the medical community opposed prohibition, as well as Anslinger's political agenda and skewed information about the plant. In protest to this approach, Dr. David Woodward is quoted saying, “I use the word ‘cannabis’ in preference to the word ‘marihuana,’ because cannabis is the correct term for describing the plant and its products.” Woodward continued, “It was the use of the term ‘marihuana’ rather than the use of the term ‘cannabis’ or the use of the term ‘Indian hemp’ that was responsible, as you realized, probably, a day or two ago, for the failure of the dealers in Indian hempseed to connect up this bill with their business until rather late in the day.”

While we may have grown up reciting the poem, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," most of us have evolved enough to understand this simply isn't true. Words are important and labels can create misnomers. By creating a false label for the cannabis plant to further his own political agenda in 1937, Harry J. Anslinger successfully manipulated lawmakers and public opinion not only while he was in office, but for more than four decades beyond his death!

Why Consumers Use Slang

Due to years of prohibition and the illicit nature of marijuana in the eyes of the federal government and the social stigmas of being a marijuana smoker, cannabis consumers developed certain code words or slang to stay discreet. This accumulation of aliases has only added to the confusion regarding the differences between weed and marijuana, leaving many consumers questioning, "Are weed and marijuana different?"

Weed is to Marijuana as Beer is to Alcohol

If you've ever been to Colorado, you know the variety of micro-breweries is almost as broad as the variety of cannabis dispensaries. To say you went to Denver and had a beer is giving about as much detail as saying you went to a dispensary and bought some weed. Beer is a generic term for an alcoholic beverage made from barley and hops. There are varying levels of alcohol content, a variety of flavors, ingredients, and weights.

While the plant cannabis sativa is actually an herb, many considered it a weed when feral hemp grew readily in ditches across the Heartland, so it came by the nickname "weed" naturally. However, with a much deeper understanding of the plant, we know there are many kinds of weed, just as there are many kinds of beer. Weed is a generic, slang term to describe marijuana.

Unfortunately, a weed is often thought to be noxious and unwanted, so the term "weed" may produce a negative connotation or vibe for some individuals. In all, it's estimated there are more than 1,200 slang terms related to cannabis or the use thereof, these are only a few of the most common and well-known:

weed marijuana in a field

  • Pot
  • Reefer
  • Ganja
  • Bud
  • Grass
  • Trees
  • Green
  • Herb
  • Kind
  • Kush
  • Cabbage
  • Chronic
  • Dank
  • 420

Calling it What it is

In order to start changing the long-overdue public relations problems this plant accumulated throughout history, we must start by calling it what it is. As easy and as fun as many of the slang terms may be, referring to the plant as professionally and intelligently as possible helps to remove the negative connotation associated with the various slang words which were largely used to support the black market.

In the era of legal cannabis, both in a medical and recreational capacity, consumers are not interested in prejudiced agendas or false claims. Today, with the information super-highway at our fingertips, consumers want the truth.

Cannabis Sativa: The Truth

According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Cannabis sativa is a plant belonging to the Dicotyledons class, in the order of Urticales and a part of the Cannabaceae, or Hemp family. Like many other herbs, the cannabis sativa plant produces chemical compounds which may be beneficial for a multitude of medical ailments.

  • Hemp is Cannabis.
  • Marijuana is Cannabis.
  • Weed is Cannabis.

Refining the image of cannabis and cannabis consumers starts with giving the plant the respect it deserves by calling it what it is. How cannabis is ultimately defined is by how it’s grown, how it’s used, and where the overall intent of the consumer lies. No differently than some people may look to Lavender essential oils to relax, or St. Johns Wort to calm anxiety, the cannabis sativa plant may provide a wide range of herbal remedies.

Americans today have constant access to information and they can no longer have the wool pulled over their eyes by ingenious marketing schemes and fictitious headlines. A simple Google search for "Is weed different than marijuana?" will lead a savvy searcher to an unlimited number of resources to set the record straight.