The tumultuous history of cannabis in North America helps us draw insight into whether the word Marijuana is politically correct or racist.
The Origins Of The Word Marijuana
The exact origin of the word Marijuana is not completely known. However, we know the word originated in Mexico around the turn of the last century. According to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of the word marijuana is documented in 1874. Similarly, the word Pot is thought to have derived from the Mexican-Spanish word potiguaya. According to Dictionary.com, Potiguaya came from potación de guaya, a wine or brandy in which marijuana flower have been steeped. It literally means “the drink of grief.”
Throughout the 1800s, the medical community referred to the plant as cannabis. The cannabis name is derived from its scientific name cannabis sativa. In the 1900s, the media, law enforcement, and people started referring to it as marijuana or marihuana—to give it a racist and Mexican tone.1
By 1898, cannabis was widely used in Mexico.2 Cannabis was not illegal in Mexico before the 1920s. However, according to Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America, cannabis was highly shunned by the Catholic church. To avoid being ostracized by the clergy and congregation, cannabis users in Mexico began using slang names for secrecy. The nicknames they used for cannabis were women’s names like Rosa Marie, Maria Rosa, Maria Juana. The theory is marijuana came from a combination of Maria (Spanish for Mary) and Juana (Spanish for Jane). Furthermore, this is where the nickname Mary Jane is translated from.
The Reason Why The Word Marijuana is Racist and Not Politically Correct
During the Mexican Revolution, Mexican’s fleed persecution and danger by migrating north of the border. Mexican’s were not warmly welcomed into America. Mexicans who cross the border into America were met with xenophobic attitudes.
In El Paso, Texas in 1914, an altercation between white Texans and Mexican immigrants broke out into a brawl. A cop broke up the fight and found cannabis on the immigrants. The Texans involved in the fight told the cop the cannabis made the Mexicans aggressive. The rumors spread and expanded to numerous other horror stories. The rumors and lies eventually lead to a statewide prohibition against the sale and possession of cannabis. The new law gave police the ability to target and discriminate against Mexicans.
Harry Anslinger was the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He worked under President Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. He was blatantly racist in his drug war. At a hearing in the 1920s, Commissioner Anslinger’s testimony was glaringly racist:
“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.”— Harry J. Anslinger, first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics
Substitutions For the Word Marijuana
In conclusion, marijuana is a racist and not politically correct word because of its negative past. Similarly, the term Chinaman is racists due to the usage and treatment of the Chinese immigrants who built the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. Irishman also has negative connotations due to its notorious past. However, the term Englishman is not commonly considered to be racist.
Nowadays the formal word to use is cannabis. Today, we have a different attitude towards cannabis. Cannabis has been accepted as a medicine. It has a better social status than during the early 19th century. It is enjoyed by all cultures. More informal names are weed, bud, pot, grass, reefer, tea, herb, ganja, broccoli.
2Sloman, Larry, et al. Reefer Madness: Marijuana in America. Grove Press, 1983.