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Hawaiian Legislators Attack Marijuana's Racist Legacy

Lawmakers cite the racist past of the term “marijuana” in their effort to change the state’s official nomenclature to "cannabis."

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A new bill introduced by state Senator Mike Gabbard would change Hawaii’s ‘medical marijuana program’ to a ‘medical cannabis program.’

The semantic change may sound arbitrary, but for Gabbard, the chosen nomenclature represents an ugly reminder of prohibition’s racist beginnings.

Cannabis was made illegal in the early 20th century in part due to racist stereotypes and prejudices against Mexicans. According to West Hawaii Today, Senate Bill 786 argues that marijuana is a “slang term” with “prejudicial implications rooted in racial stereotypes” dating back to the early days of prohibition.

On the other hand, cannabis is a scientific term for the plant, which carries no such connotations. If Gabbard’s bill passes, all state documents and programs associated with medical cannabis in Hawaii would have to change, including Department of Health’s websites, and even official letterheads.

And while it might seem that removing language deemed offensive and replacing it with a more scientific language should be a slam dunk, Hawaii has a less-than-stellar track record of passing cannabis-related legislation.

For starters, the island legalized medical cannabis in 2000, but didn’t set up a program for dispensaries until last year. And while dispensary licenses have been given and the state is transitioning towards more widespread availability, some Hawaii lawmakers are still afraid of the Trump administration’s vague threats of a federal cannabis crackdown.

“We need to go kind of slow right now,” Rep. Joy San Buenaventura said. “I don’t want to set people up for federal prosecution even though it may be legal statewide. Not after what’s come out of the Trump administration. We need to protect existing medical marijuana patients.”

So while Hawaii might not be legalizing recreational pot anytime soon, the least they can do is change the state’s official nomenclature and remove some of the racist stigma.

This change that should be considered nation-wide as the country reexamines our relationship with cannabis. Racial prejudice has been a facet of cannabis’ ethos since prohibition first started and in many ways, and it certainly hasn’t all gone away.

Programs like Oakland, California’s new residency-based dispensary licenses have started an effort to level the cannabis playing field, and Hawaii’s SB786 is another step in the right direction towards making cannabis and the industry around it as inclusive as possible.

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