Why The Word ‘Marijuana’ Is Not Racist (Op-Ed)
“There is not one piece of evidence that suggests that word was used purposely by anybody to stain cannabis.”
By Rebecca Rivas, Missouri Independent
I was talking to a cannabis business owner I’ve known for a while and respect. The man, who is white, told me he refused to use the term “marijuana” because it’s racist.
It was one of my first conversations on the cannabis beat, which I’ve been on for a month now. And my mind was bursting with questions.
Should I be offended by the word marijuana??!!
This Chicana journalist has been on a mission to get answers ever since.
Immediately, I turned to Google and realized that he was talking about the numerous accounts saying that in the 1930s, American politicians leading the charge of prohibition popularized the term “marijuana” in the U.S. to paint the drug as a “Mexican vice” and to have an excuse to persecute Mexican immigrants.
Yet now after talking to scholars, lawmakers, fellow Latino journalists and even my parents, I’ve learned that—yes—race is involved, but not in the way I expected.
First, I spoke with Isaac Campos, a professor of Latin American History at the University of Cincinnati and author of Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs.
About a month ago, Campos published findings online of his long study on the history of cannabis terminology, and it’s compelling work.
Bottom line: He said the claim that politicians intentionally popularized the term during prohibition is false—because the word was being used decades before then in the United States.
And in his view, people shouldn’t have a problem using “marijuana.” In fact, erasing the word brings its own problems.
The first reference to the intoxicant “marihuana” was found in 1842 in Mexican newspapers, and then the term made its way to the United States in the 1890s.
After looking through thousands of American newspaper articles between 1910 and 1919, Campos found that “hashish” was by far the most common word used for intoxicant cannabis during that time—and “marihuana” came second.
Words most frequently used for intoxicant cannabis in U.S. newspapers 1910-1919
Here’s the thing: Throughout the world, people were getting high off cannabis largely through hashish, by putting a lump in their mouths or smoking it in a pipe.
Americans began using the word “marihuana” to describe the method found in Mexico—smoking it through cigarettes—which had much milder and more controllable effects, Campos said.
“That’s why the word sticks,” Campos said, “because the word was associated with this particular way of taking the drug that came from Mexico.”
He compares using “marijuana” to the word “salsa.” Rather than just saying “sauce,” it’s really specific to the way Mexicans make sauce for tacos and other things.
The myth, he said, that hardly any Americans had heard of the word before “an aggrieved William Randolph Hearst decided to pound the term into the American lexicon…to facilitate its demonization” was first introduced by marijuana-reform activist Jack Herer in the 1980s.
Was there racism against Mexicans? Absolutely, he said.
“But there is not one piece of evidence that suggests that word was used purposely by anybody to stain cannabis,” Campos said. “There was absolutely no need for it. It was already associated with the more foreign-sounding word ‘hashish.’”
The idea that it was “racialized” became another argument from activists to push to overturn prohibition, he said.
“The fact that those arguments worked out, I think that’s great,” he said, noting that the laws disproportionately impacted communities of color as well as Mexico. “But I’m a professional historian, so my job is to try to set the record straight.”
Herer’s influence can still be seen today. Last year the state of Washington banned using the term “marijuana” in state statute, and Virginia and Maine introduced legislation to do the same.
After talking with Campos, I found two resolutions by the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators passed in 2017 and 2021, arguing the term was racist and should be replaced by “cannabis” in statute.
Interestingly, the caucus cited a study by Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML, on cannabis prohibition in California to justify their statements.
However, that paper actually corroborates what Campos says: That marijuana got swept up in the movement to ban opium, which some companies were adding to medicines without people’s knowledge. And many of the northern states that began the marijuana bans didn’t have Mexican immigrants yet.
“Yet even without the Mexicans, the Board would likely have proceeded to outlaw Indian hemp anyway, just like Massachusetts, Maine, Indiana, and Wyoming,” Gieringer wrote.
I reached out to Gieringer, and he told me in an email: “There is nothing racist about the word marijuana/juana. It is the proper term for smoked cannabis buds and leaf. Our organization, NORML, is proud to represent marijuana and cannabis users of all sorts.”
I had a great conversation with New Mexico Sen. Antonio Maestas, D-Bernalillo County, who chairs the Hispanic caucus’ law and criminal justice committee.
He didn’t have a hand in writing the resolutions, but he took the lead on the 2007 legislation that legalized medical marijuana in New Mexico.
He was surprised the caucus called the word racist and isn’t personally offended by it. This claim never came up in his many years advocating for decriminalization in New Mexico, he said, but he believes it’s “better messaging.”
“The word cannabis kind of has a plant connotation,” he said. “The word marijuana kind of has an illegal connotation. It’s in our interest to use the word cannabis exclusively when dealing with cannabis policy.”
I told him about another academic study I read on how successful campaigns for marijuana legalization—in Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon—heavily relied on “white individualism,” meaning the face and focus of their campaigns were responsible, middle-class white people.
Maestas says it makes sense because when they were pushing legalization in New Mexico, they were targeting moderates and “rural conservative Chicanos.”
“If you’re trying to go mainstream and sell a product, you market to the average-Joe white person,” he said.
Using Mexican-sounding words probably doesn’t fit into that strategy.