Is It Time to Retire the Term ‘Marijuana'?

October 23, 2017

Way back in the 1990s, around the time of that first, groundbreaking legalization of medical cannabis—thanks, California!—it was common to hear the warning “This isn’t your parents’ marijuana!” This was a bit of caution aimed at smokers returning to the fold: Newer, more carefully cultivated cannabis flower were exponentially more potent than the “street weed” many children of the ‘60s had grown up with, and imbibing an entire joint—as many remembered doing with ease—could have unintended consequences.

Now, some 20 years into this grand experiment, cannabis advocates are wondering whether the word “marijuana” still has any relevance. Maybe it’s time once and for all to discard the old labels—and old concepts—and rediscover the role this fascinating plant has to play in our lives today. Let’s start by looking at the definition of marijuana and what marijuana used to be.  

“Marihuana:” An Unwelcome Guest from the South

Although cannabis and hemp (essentially a very low-potency commercial crop) have a long history in this country, its medicinal (and, one assumes, recreational) role was limited. Cannabis tinctures and hashish were available over the counter—as were more powerful “remedies” as cocaine and opium—where they were recommended for anxiety, muscular pain, and upset stomach. Sound familiar?

But beginning in the early 20th century, migrant laborers from Mexico brought cannabis flower—“marihuana”—and the practice of purely recreational smoking with them. Race and class-based unease about immigrants tainted cannabis, as did the rising tide of the temperance movement, culminating in Prohibition in 1919 and the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. Cannabis was officially flora non grata in the United States, and for most Americans, the word “marijuana” would take on a dark and sinister cast.   

Marijuana vs. Cannabis: New Terms for a New Era

While marijuana has shed many of its negative associations—recent polls suggest a clear majority of Americans now support both medical and recreational cannabis—this is as good a time as any to reconsider what we call the plant.

For one thing, “marijuana,” as noted above, is not a botanical term; it’s a culturally specific one. We don’t call cheese “spoiled milk,” as do many Chinese, who grow up in a largely dairyless culture.

Additionally, cannabis has a different role to play in today’s society than it did a century ago. Research is uncovering deep and potentially game-changing synergies between the cannabis plant and our bodies—largely through its interaction with the Endocannabinoid System—but many physicians remain skeptical of the plant’s usefulness as medicine (thanks, Jeff Sessions).

The words we choose to describe our world send powerful messages; a rebranding of the old “marijuana” may not change everyone’s minds, but switching to the term “cannabis” can have a subtle effect, signalling that old assumption may no longer be valid, or that it’s time for a reassessment of outdated—and often negative—perceptions of this controversial plant-based medicine.

Of course, at the end of the day, we’re fine with whatever you want to call cannabis, so long as you’re deriving value—recreational, medical, spiritual—from it. But consider the potential of a subtle rebranding, the power of turning over a new leaf and seeing something you thought you knew from a different perspective. Now that’s powerful medicine.   

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