Back when this column began, we received a letter from an outraged reader who couldn't believe we'd used the racist and inaccurate word “marijuana” to describe our favorite medicinal plant. Our response was to implement a policy of only using the word “cannabis” in print. This went on for about a year or so until we figured out the same thing that a recent study learned: Most people don't care what terms you use at all.
According to “Has the 'M' word been framed? Marijuana, cannabis, and public opinion,” published last month in the journal PloS One, no evidence was found “to suggest that the public distinguishes between the terms 'marijuana' and 'cannabis.'”
Researchers at Vanderbilt University surveyed 1,600 adults in the US to determine if using the words “marijuana” or “cannabis” in place of each other would have an effect on a participant's opinions about the plant. The survey asked a number of questions using one of four randomly assigned terms: “marijuana,” “cannabis,” “medical marijuana” or “medical cannabis.” The survey covered topics like legalization, moral acceptability and potential harms.
“We find no support for the notion that changing the name of the drug from 'marijuana' to 'cannabis' affects public opinion on the drug or the policies governing it … respondents offered similar opinions whether we called the drug 'marijuana' or 'cannabis.'”
And this should come as a surprise to no one. While the term “marijuana” unarguably has racist origins, those implications disappeared from the group mind generations ago. No one associates the “M” word with Mexicans raping white women anymore. In fact, I'll bet most of you had to reread that last line just to make sure it wasn't a typo.
Here's why some people pretend to be upset over the “M” word:
In early 20th century America, as more and more Mexicans emigrated to the US, hostility toward Hispanic populations was raging. The media published stories blaming the nation's low employment rates on them (déjà vu), and Hispanic people became the targets for mob violence and hate crimes.
Now, let it be said that the exact connection between cannabis demonization and anti-Latino discrimination is a matter of speculation—but the connection clearly exists. According to NPR, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1905 that “a man who had smoken a marihuana cigarette attacked and killed a policeman and badly wounded three others … People who smoke marihuana finally lose their mind and never recover it, but their brains dry up and they die, most of times suddenly.” In 1925, The New York Times ran an article titled “Kills Six in a Hospital: Mexican, Crazed by Marihuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife.”
The Spanish word “marijuana,” or “marihuana,” has a pretty convoluted history, and it's not exactly clear what the word originally referred to. Experts have traced it origins to such disparate sources as Chinese immigrants living in Mexico or Angolan slaves brought to Brazil by the Portuguese.
It's even possible that the word was originally used in relation to a completely different plant. The highly toxic astragalus is commonly called “locoweed,” because of the effects it has on livestock that consume it. There's also the infamously toxic hallucinogen Datura stramonium—known for causing violent reactions in its users—which has also been called “locoweed.” The use of the term “mariguana” in late 19th century by Mexican newspapers to describe a plant-based drug that would drive people insane and cause them to act violently may have referred to one of these two plants, or something else altogether. It's very possible that the simple conflation of one “locoweed”—
A popular conspiracy theory you might have heard is that William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper mogul and owner of a number of lumber mills, executed a campaign against cannabis in his newspapers to ensure the victory of trees over hemp as the American source of paper. To do this, he allegedly capitalized on anti-Mexican sentiment and began publishing outrageous stories about emigrates, crazed on a drug called “marijuana,” acting out the very worst crimes on a defenseless, white citizenship. The conspiracists say he had to call it “marijuana,” because cannabis was a familiar plant to Americans.
Another theory is that Henry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the US Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics—who had his own complicated reasons for hating cannabis—used the term “marihuana” to confuse Congress and convince them to outlaw the much-loved (or at least tolerated) cannabis.
Whoever is to blame, their tactics might have worked on lawmakers, but they didn't work on the general public. People just started using “marijuana” to refer to cannabis instead of thinking there was a new drug on the block that was driving people to rape, murder and commit other acts of atrocity.
Which, as I said earlier, should be apparent to anyone alive in the last century. What's sad about the current survey is that a team of researchers—who could have spent their time performing the desperately needed analysis of any number of data vectors related to cannabis—had to waste time on something this obvious, because some alarmists were trying to create drama out of ether. Hopefully someone who knows one of these pearl-clutchers—a friend or loved one, presumably—can sit them down and explain how making up problems that don't exist wastes everybody's time, energy and funds. Maybe they need to hear “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” one more time.