Is it 'cannabis’ or 'marijuana’? Language evolves as social, legal views shift –

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Laura Subin would love to see the word “marijuana” fade into the past in favor of “cannabis,” the scientific term for the drug. 

Matt Simon shares a similar view. “I would like to see that term not used for anything but a slang term,” he said.

Subin and Simon, both cannabis advocates in Vermont, say the word “marijuana” is steeped in a racist history. Vermont’s legislators, who scrapped the term in favor of “cannabis” in the bill that would legalize commercial sales, seem to agree.

The word marijuana is indicative of a „horrifying legacy of racism,” Subin said. In 1930s America, „marijuana” was used in the context of a “threat” posed by Mexicans crossing the border into the United States.

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Ironically, Subin and Simon work for organizations with “marijuana” in their titles. Subin is director of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana. Simon serves as New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project.

That duality points out the evolution of a product long associated with slackers, stoners and potheads into one that – if the bill is passed by the Vermont Legislature this session – becomes a legal and potentially very lucrative business opportunity. As society’s view of the drug matures, the nomenclature is starting to mature as well.

“We understand the power of language and why the use of certain language is problematic,” said Kathryn Blume, communications director for Heady Vermont, a cannabis media and events company and advocacy group. “The cultural climate for changing the language around cannabis is quite fertile right now.”

‘Marijuana’ as racist term

That changing language is reflected in the current commercial sales bill, passed by the Vermont Senate in March 2019 and pending in the House of Representatives. (Vermont legalized limited non-commercial possession of the drug in 2018, more than a decade after use for medical purposes was permitted.) Organizations including the Marijuana Policy Project and Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana urged legislators to avoid calling the drug marijuana and use the word cannabis instead.

“’Marijuana’ had been used to kind of degrade the product over the years,’” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, one of the bill’s sponsors. “If you look at the history of marijuana in the Nixon years and even earlier it was seen as a lower drug used by low-class people.”

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A 2016 report titled “History of Marijuana Regulation in Vermont” by Michele Childs of the state Office of Legislative Council delved into the background of the term “marijuana.” The report included an archival photo of cannabis extract marketed by Eli Lilly and Co. for medicinal purposes. 

“The plant was in mainstream culture for many years,” according to Blume of Heady Vermont.

“Is the Mexican Nation ‘Locoed’ By a Peculiar Weed?” asked a 1915 newspaper headline included in the report. A poster credited to the Inter-State Narcotic Association used the Spanish-language term in warning of the “Killer Drug ‘Marihuana’ – a powerful narcotic in which lurks Murder! Insanity! Death!” 

‘Maria and Juan coming across the border’

Much of the hyperbole linking the drug to Mexicans can be traced to Harry Anslinger, mentioned in Childs’ report. Anslinger was the commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the 1930s.

According to Blume, Anslinger was “a pretty profound racist” who terrorized Americans with propaganda about “Maria and Juan coming across the border in the middle of the night” with this scary drug. The word “marijuana” became loaded in a way a scientific term such as “cannabis” could not.

“Once you have this ingrained racism,” Subin said, “it’s easy to use it against all of those you can stigmatize as ‘other.’”

Sears said there was no controversy in the state Senate about making sure the Vermont bill used the word cannabis instead of marijuana. “It’s really just an attempt to try to use terminology that’s not racist in any way,” he said.

Subin remembers disinterest early in the bill’s discussions as the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana promoted the idea of cannabis over marijuana.

“This piece of the issue took a long time for people to care at all,” she said, noting that linking the drug to minority populations has contributed to racially-biased enforcement of drug laws. “There’s a lot of denial, I think, in Vermont about our own history of racism. A lot of times when I tried to talk about the facts and how the laws are being enforced, people would say, ‘It might be a problem elsewhere but it’s not a problem in Vermont.’”

“It was hard to get people to accept ingrained racism,” Subin said. “I think it was even more difficult to say our language is reflective of that, and this is an important and significant change.”

Confusion surrounding cannabis

Once lawmakers grasped the idea that the term “marijuana” shouldn’t be part of the law, they embraced it quickly, Subin said. The term cannabis, however, risks confusion: what has been called marijuana is not the only product under the umbrella term “cannabis,” which includes hemp and legal products such as CBD which contains minimal amounts of THC, the active ingredient in the drug.

“We are clear (in the bill) that it (marijuana) has a certain level of THC in it rather than hemp,” Sears said of the drug. “I think they’re two different products, but we’re specific about hemp.” 

Blume of Heady Vermont said she calls what has been known as marijuana “THC cannabis.” Others, she said, use the term “adult-use cannabis.”

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There is a risk of confusion, Subin acknowledged, by using a term for the drug that also has other meanings.

“Yes, it maybe is muddying the waters, but it is the same plant” that produces high THC cannabis and low THC cannabis. “People that don’t want to acknowledge that are putting their heads in the sand.”

‘Weed’ and other pet names for pot

Most of the cannabis vs. marijuana discussion is on the legal and policy level. The average person is still going to call the drug whatever they want.

“People love slang terms for cannabis,” according to Simon, “and there will probably be a lot of slang words for cannabis.”

Above: The popularity of the search terms „marijuana” versus „cannabis” in Vermont from 2004 to the present. 

Blume, for instance, said she uses the term “weed” when describing what is commonly called marijuana. “There’s a thousand words for cannabis,” the Heady Vermont spokesperson said, “and people are always going to have their favorite pet name.”

Simon’s and Subin’s organizations are faced with the conundrum of whether to change their names. The Marijuana Policy Project was so named when it was founded in 1995, using the word that was “what this plant was known by for the last 80 years by most people in the country,” according to Simon.

“It has been a topic of conversation around the water cooler” about whether to change the name to something like Cannabis Policy Project, Simon said. “I understand the desire to hear the plant referred to as ‘cannabis’ entirely, and I share that desire.”

Whether that name change happens, however, is more complicated than a simple desire. “It’s a lot of work and a lot of paperwork to make that change,” according to Simon.

The Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, Subin’s organization, began in 2014, just before the move from marijuana to cannabis began taking hold. The group used the word “marijuana,” Subin said, because it matched the legal language at the time.

“It really has been a cultural paradigm shift,” Subin said. “Language is a really important indicator of shifting views on a topic.”

The Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana might not have to change its name. The organization could become obsolete if the bill in the state Legislature passes, legalizing commercial cannabis in Vermont.

“We’re hoping to put ourselves out of business,” Subin said.

Contact Brent Hallenbeck at 660-1844 or Follow Brent on Twitter at

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