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Is The Word “Marijuana” Racist Against Latinos?


Cannabis, also known as marijuana, is easily the most popular drug worldwide. Many states legalized cannabis for medical use and California, Colorado, and Washington DC have made it legal to buy it for recreational use. It’s only a matter of time before it is legal in most places in the United States. I noticed that in the last few years, advocates of legalizing marijuana and people involved in its legal sale started using the word cannabis to describe the word. This is, of course, perfectly fine as that is the Latinate name of the plant. I did a little research and it turns out that the popularization of the word marijuana in the United States has a checkered and racist past.

In the 19th century cannabis was legal in the United States. It was used in all kinds of medicines as a cure-all as was cocaine and heroin. But starting in the early 20th century, cannabis began to be outlawed. One of the men most responsible for the demonization of cannabis was a man by the name of Harry Anslinger who was the first U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief. The prevailing theory at the time was the most people who used cannabis were Latinos and African Americans. Anslinger’s main target in the criminalization of cannabis were these same groups. Basically, he sought to keep White people from doing the drug as it was believed that if they smoked pot they would become animal-like…like Latinos and African-Americans.

The origins of the word marijuana come from Mexico originally. It is commonly believed that the term comes from the the Nahuatl word mallihuan which means “prisoner”. About the time of the Mexican Revolution it went through a transformation to marijuana which means “Mary Jane”. When Mexican migrants began pouring into California and the Southwest during the 20’s and 30’s they brought both the drug and the name with them. The reason Anslinger chose to call the drug marijuana was that it sounded foreign and scary to White American ears. Spanish was spoken by practically no one who wasn’t of Latino origin and, then as now, Latino immigrants were viewed with suspicion. It was thought that they were here to “take over” and “change the culture”. Similarly, reefer was the word used in the jazz world by African Americans. Who can forget the insane propaganda film Reefer Madness? It’s wacky.

For this reason many cannabis advocates starting in the 21st century have refused to use the word marijuana. Of course, most people just call it pot, weed, or whatever. Not many people say, “Hey, can I buy some marijuana?” Nevertheless, it’s good to know that the U.S. government twisted a term from Spanish into a racist pejorative to scare White folks from smoking weed. It obviously didn’t work as cannabis hit the mainstream in the 1960’s counterculture mainly by White kids. So, please don’t call it marijuana.

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