Semantics Matter: What Is the History of the Word Marijuana?

Cannabis is nothing new to our society and is a topic of discussion across the globe. The use of cannabis dates as far back as 2727 B.C.; where it was deemed a medical plant in Asia for thousands of years. Reports even show widespread use of cannabis throughout varying Eastern cultures, leading up to its use in the world today. Cannabis for consumption and agriculture is not a unique concept to the human race and played a significant role in the industrialization of various past societies. The plant species cannabis sativa, today is known as hemp, was the cannabis plant of the past until the early 1900s.

Before this period, the plant’s formal name was cannabis, as used in multiple news reports and medical journals throughout the 19th century. The actual term, marijuana, didn’t popularize until it hit the Americas in the early 20th century. Fast forward to today, and the history of the word “marijuana” may have negative connotations unbeknown to most cannabis consumers. There is even a widespread movement classifying the term “marijuana” as racist and ignorant to its past.

Let’s break the wild history of the term marijuana down to see where these claims are stemming.

Introduction to the Question at Hand

looking at weed through a magnifying glass

Pot, hashish, reefer, ganja, dope, grass, chronic, weed, and marijuana are all terms regarding the cannabis plant. Some of these terms have cultural origins while others came about with the development of anti-cannabis organizations in the early 20th century. While all of these terms are broadly used in the legal cannabis industry today, many activists say semantics truly matter in this market and we should not ignore the brutal past regarding cannabis in American society. If the history of the word marijuana ultimately concludes a racist, bigot, and xenophobic origin, should it knowingly be the modern-day term to describe cannabis in the newly legal markets?

Questions to Keep in Mind:

  • When did cannabis become popular in the United States?
  • When did the U.S. begin regulating cannabis at a federal level?
  • What social groups did cannabis prohibition affect the most in the United States?
  • Why was cannabis listed as a schedule 1 drug?
  • How do American citizens view cannabis today?
  • How much of the “reefer madness” ideology is apparent in American culture in the 21st century?
  • What is the definition of racism and does the term “marijuana” fall under that definition?

Theories Regarding the History of the Word Marijuana

The word “marijuana” is deeply embedded in the current legal cannabis industry without any question regarding its original origins. For many, “marijuana” is an easy way to describe the cannabis plant. Some even believe that the term is better than using classic slang such as pot, weed, hash, or reefer. In a growing industry with such a politically and racially disturbing background, semantics truly matter. Consumer education is somewhat tricky with the old-school reefer-madness ideology. Sure, the times are changing, and any educated consumer can determine the past context regarding cannabis has many ancillary motives, aside from presenting the truth. Nevertheless, with the industry putting such a focus on semantics, it is only reasonable to question the history of the word marijuana.

  • Before the 1900s, cannabis was commonly referred to as ganja in Eastern culture, particularly, in Sanskrit.
  • Cannabis was even once referred to as “bhang” in The Thousand and One Nights.
  • The term “hashish” came about well before the 1900s in The Count of Monte Cristo.
  • The Spanish term for cannabis is “marihuana,” but its origins are unknown to this day. One theory is that it came from the Spanish word for saying “Chinese oregano” known as mejorana (chino).
  • Another theory is that Angolan slaves, sent to Brazil by the Portuguese, brought the Bantu term for cannabis, ma-kaņa.
  • Some even think that the term “marijuana” originated in South America from a blend of Spanish girl names, Maria and Juana.
  • The final theory is, Chinese immigrants combined syllables to describe the cannabis plant in Western Mexico as, ma-ren-hua; which was then altered by the Spanish language to be “marihuana.”

The ultimate origins of the history of the word “marijuana” are relatively unknown. Either way, its history does show just how much cannabis played a role throughout the world. It also indicates that the term “marijuana” was widely embedded in a variety of races, cultures, and politics. It leads us to the question at hand, is the term “marijuana” racist?

Marijuana and Racism

top of marijuana plant

There is no doubt about it that the overall history of marijuana in the United States played quite the role in social, economic, and political control. From the taxation of hemp to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, marijuana reform is not as simple as the government protecting us from a harmful substance. The harm done to minority groups solely through the prohibition of cannabis is something the United States is still feeling shockwaves from today. Wrongful imprisonment, racial stereotypes, inciting social fear, and pharmacopeia take over are all causes of the disgusting political oversight on the prohibition of cannabis.

If our great nation once grew hemp as a significant agricultural crop, how did it wind up having a racially driven context in today’s world? Was it all the United States or were other countries cracking down on cannabis? If so, why did the United States popularize the term “marijuana,” and was it for racial motives?

The Facts Behind Marijuana and Racism

The question of marijuana being a racist term in today’s society is primarily focusing on the United States and its aimed cannabis reform. Before the 1900s, cannabis and hemp were grown and mainly used, for agricultural reasons. The consumption of marijuana in the United States was never a political concern until the early 1900s. Oddly enough, the same time Mexican immigration to the United States began to increase, so did the question of marijuana legality in America.

  • Henry J. Finger, a member of California’s State Board of Pharmacy, wrote in a letter in 1911 regarding cannabis use in America. “They are an undesirable lot and the habit is growing in California very fast; the fear is that it is not being confined to the Hindoos alone but that they are initiating our whites into this habit.”
  • Harry Anslinger testified in the 1937 Congress, using a letter from Floyd Baskette. “I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That’s why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons, most of who are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions.”

Political and racial positions like the above statements played a significant role in pushing the United States towards drastic marijuana reform. Harry Anslinger himself even stated, “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, 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.”

While everything shown above is sickening to read and remarkable to hear from leaders of this great nation, it is a brutal reality people need to know. This ideology led America down the path to the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 and The War on Drugs. It was this train of thought that, in hindsight, enhanced racial tensions, social and economic control and the unethically insane number of incarcerations. In turn, destroying minority groups and preventing the equal opportunity for the pursuit of happiness in America.

Is Using the Term Marijuana Racist?

With everything listed above, many may be quick to say using the term “marijuana” is racially charged and a blatant disregard to the racial context it was built upon. However, it is essential to remember the United States did not coin the term “marijuana.” Even Mexico was using the word “marijuana” in a poor context well before the United States took over. In the late 1800s, there were multiple news articles with headlines instilling fear of marijuana consumption and relating it to violent acts across the country. America merely took this ideology and used it, wrongfully, to its own political, social, and economic benefit. Mexico even started aspects of marijuana prohibition before the United States. In other words, anyone who thinks cannabis was made illegal due to Mexican immigration is misinformed. However, the racially charged history of marijuana prohibition is impossible to ignore. Regardless, it does not mean the United States Government did not use the term “marijuana” in a similar context for its own motives.


It is more than understandable to believe the term “marijuana” is a racially driven word. The wrongful use of the term led to a multitude of injustices in America, primarily, attacking of minority groups. These injustices are still infecting our society to this day, and it is something our nation must continue working to change. However, there are potentially unknown factors behind the wrongful use of the term “marijuana.” For instance, we do not know if the cannabis during that time was safe to consume, laced with harmful substances, or situationally detrimental to consumers. Many of the old articles relating cannabis consumption to violence can be tied back to the use of a Mexican plant known as “locoweed.”

In other words, there are other potential factors at play as to why the United States and Mexico took such a strong stance on cannabis reform. Regardless, its racial context is something the newly legal industry cannot forget. It should be a part of all further cannabis legislation and education in America. If you find the term “marijuana” is too racially driven, begin changing the norm by keeping the word out of the discussion of cannabis moving forward. Semantics do matter, and it is up to the cannabis experts, professionals, and government leaders to begin righting our nation’s wrongs.