The Washington state legislature recently approved a bill which would replace the word “marijuana” with “cannabis” in all state laws, citing the racist exploitation of the former term.
The legislature unanimously passed the bill in March, and Gov. Jay Inslee has already signed it. It takes effect in June.
One legislator, Democratic Rep. Melanie Morgan, noted America’s Reefer Madness movement in the 1930s, when the US government began a campaign against “marijuana” to confuse Americans regarding the drug’s true nature: Cannabis, which was commonly sold in stores at the turn of the century as a medical product.
"As recreational marijuana use became more popular, it was negatively associated with Mexican immigrants," Morgan said. "Even though it seems simple because it’s just one word, the reality is we’re healing the wrongs that were committed against Black and Brown people around cannabis."
Morgan also brought up Harry Anslinger, the former Bureau of Narcotics head who led the Reefer Madness movement.
"It was … Anslinger that said, and I quote, ‘Marijuana is the most violent causing drug in the history of mankind. And most marijuana users are Negroes, Hispanic, Caribbean, and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz, and swing result from marijuana usage,'" she said.
Like most criminal prosecutions, anti-cannabis laws have negatively impacted Black and Chicano communities more than white communities. Even in states where weed is now legal, Black and Brown people are ticketed for public consumption at higher rates than white tokers, even though all ethnicities consume cannabis at roughly the same rates.
This isn’t the first time North American lawmakers excluded “marijuana” from legal terminology. When Canada legalized weed in 2019, the federal law didn’t mention “marijuana” even once. Canada’s law only employs the term “cannabis” when referring to THC-rich products. The word “hemp” is specifically employed when referring to cannabis with insignificant amounts of THC.
The true origins of the word “marijuana” are shrouded in mystery. Academics and potheads have proposed several theories, but none have been definitively supported. The only fact anyone can agree on is that it came from Mexicans immigrating to the US in the 1920s and 1930s.