The cannabis plant has been given many nicknames: ganja, herb, weed, trees, grass, dope, the list goes on. Perhaps the most intriguing name for cannabis is marijuana. The exact origins of the term marijuana have not been completely determined, but there are several possibilities, most of which converge in Mexico during the late 19th century.
The Hazy Beginnings of Marijuana
The term marijuana is an English version of the Mexican-Spanish word that was previously spelled marihuana or mariguana. It could have been derived from ‘ma ren hua,’ the Chinese word for hemp seed flower, and brought over by Chinese immigrants to western Mexico.
The Spanish words mejorana or mayorana, derived from Latin, describe herbs and might have been referencing cannabis. This could trace back to Arabic origins, popularized by Muslim inhabitants in Spain during the middle ages known as the Moors, and later brought to Mexico.
The name ‘Marijuana’ could have South American origins, dating back to the 16th Century when the Portuguese brought the hemp plant overseas to their new colony in Brazil to grow fiber. Marjoram, the English term for oregano, could have also led to the usage of the term marihuana in Mexico.
Introducing Marijuana To The U.S.
Regardless of marijuana’s exact history, it was referred to as cannabis in the United States until the early 20th Century. In fact, many of the major pharmaceutical companies that still exist today were putting cannabis in their medicines in the early 1900s.
As of 1919, Eli Lilly used cannabis extract oil in 23 different medicines. Squibb (of Bristol-Myers Squibb) offered 15 cannabis products at that time, in tablets, tinctures, fluid extracts, and powder form. Parke Davis (which was later bought by Pfizer) sold 27 different cannabis-infused medicines to treat symptoms of migraines, sexually transmitted diseases, epilepsy, and stomach worms. Cannabis was also used as an aphrodisiac.
So, what changed?
During the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910, nearly one million Mexicans fled their home country and crossed the border into the United States. Many of these immigrants were smoking cannabis for recreational purposes, which was not a common use in the United States at the time. It became known as locoweed, a term that characterized the mind-intoxicating effects of cannabis while also using the Spanish word loco, which was the beginning of demonizing Mexican immigrants for recreational pot use.
Residents in the southern border states became fearful of their new neighbors. The term marijuana entered the public consciousness, and it was used as a racist term to make it appear as if smoking marijuana recreationally was an epidemic brought into the United States by Mexican immigrants. Cities like El Paso, Texas began to ban cannabis at this time.
The Rise of Prohibition
Cannabis was outlawed in California in 1913, although legend has it that this was actually to prevent “Hindoo” immigrants from smoking it, rather than Mexicans. Henry J. Finger, a member of the California Board of Pharmacy that strongly supported drug prohibition, spread a message that Indian immigrants could become a problem for the United States due to their use of cannabis indica and hash.
“Within the last year we in California have been getting a large influx of Hindoos and they have in turn started quite a demand for cannabis indica; they are a very undesirable lot and the habit is growing in California very fast,” he said. “The fear is now that they are initiating our whites into this habit.”
While several other states including Massachusetts, Maine, Wyoming, Indiana, Colorado, and Nevada outlawed cannabis during the 1910s, it wasn’t until the 1930s that marijuana prohibition became a nationwide phenomenon.
The Infamous Efforts of Anslinger
The effort to demonize cannabis was spearheaded by Harry Anslinger, director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962. Anslinger was able to stir up anti-cannabis sentiment by citing it as the cause of violent and unlawful acts by minorities.
“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind,” he stated. “Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage.”
It is believed that Anslinger intentionally pushed for the term marijuana to enter mainstream consciousness to make Americans believe it was a foreign substance, which played to their xenophobic fears during the Great Depression. Anslinger helped pass The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which outlawed cannabis and imposed heavy fines on anyone who sold or grew the plant.
He was aided by William Randolph Hearst, a newspaper mogul that used his publications to advance the negative stigmas associated with cannabis.
Prohibition lasted until 1996 when California residents voted in favor of legalizing medical cannabis through Proposition 215. In the past two-plus decades we have seen 28 more states (plus Washington D.C.) legalize medical cannabis, and eight states have voted to legalize it for recreational purposes since 2012.
The legacy of men like Harry Anslinger, William Randolph Hearst, and Henry J. Finger is beginning to erode as more Americans find out the truth about cannabis, and how the term marijuana was used by politicians and law enforcement to add a negative stigma to cannabis use.