Cannabis, marijuana, hemp, pot, ganja, dope, weed, Mary Jane, grass, reefer, etc. These are just some of the many names and nicknames we call the plant and the various products derived from it.
Can these names be interchanged when referring to our favorite plant and drug? Or are they applicable only in specific contexts?
In this special report, let’s talk about the origins, the applications, the connotations, and the nuances of some of these names.
Why the many names?
According to David Bienenstock, who wrote the book “How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High,” the reason why the plant is called by many different nicknames is because it has been illegal for a very long time.
Bienenstock, who was also an editor for cannabis magazine High Times, explained that underground cultures naturally develop a coded language. This language allows members to talk about their activities without the risk of getting caught.
According to him, each word that we use to call cannabis has a slightly different shading. There is a word that governments want us to use, there are also words that writers use when they write about the drug, and there are those words used for being “hip.” He also noted that the hippest term is “falling out of favor” due to its troubling history.
Cannabis is the actual and scientific name of the plant. It refers to the genus that includes the three plant types: Cannabis Indica, Cannabis Sativa, and Cannabis Ruderalis.
The word comes from “Cannabaceae,” a small family of 170 species of flowering plants. These species are categorized into 11 genera and include Cannabis or hemp, Humulus or hops, and Celtis or hackberries.
Cody Stiffler, BiotrackTHC’s VP for Government Affairs, wrote that there has been some controversy surrounding the correct name of the Cannabis plant. And, according to him, most industry professionals already know or have come to know that “Cannabis” is the most appropriate word to describe this plant.
The term “marijuana” came to the U.S. from Mexico. According to Mary Mart, the word’s origins are linked with a Mexican term used to refer to the plant in the early 1900s, spelled and pronounced as “mariguana.” Mariguana evolved to “marihuana,” and eventually took the modern form marijuana.
As to how it came from Mexico, the answer is really uncertain.
The Stranger cited scholar Alan Piper as writing in the academic journal Sino-Platonic Papers in 2005 that the term marijuana could have come from China, or Spain, or was already in North America.
Many etymologists believe that the word originated from the Chinese “me ren hua,” which means hemp seed flower. There are also those who speculated that the word originally came from the Spanish “mejorana,” which translates to the aromatic spice marjoram.
Piper wrote: Of all the multifarious terms that are associated with the plant, marihuana is one of the most used in the English-speaking world and one of the most recognized universally. However, its origins remain deeply obscure.
He added that the word marijuana, along with the consumption of herbal cannabis as intoxicant, has been consistently identified as coming from Mexico, brought into the U.S. by migrant workers.
The Stranger pointed out that “the consumption of herbal cannabis as intoxicant” is the key phrase that could explain why people still use marijuana to refer to cannabis now.
Marijuana and its negative connotation
Mary Mart pointed out that marijuana carried with it “a lot of baggage” and a lot of negative connotations. This is partly because of a concerted effort in the 1930s by the U.S. to equate the word with violence and other social problems.
Furthermore, a financially motivated, biased, and mainly racist propaganda eventually succeeded in passing the “Marihuana Tax Act” in 1937. Through a misinformation campaign, the public’s perception of the plant was successfully made negative and brought no focus on the plant’s medicinal value.
Bienenstock wrote that marijuana became popular under the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger. Anslinger was widely credited for single-handedly launching America’s War on Drugs.
According to Bienenstock, Angslinger persuaded senators with large populations of immigrants to support a federal ban on cannabis. As he did so, Anslinger emphasized the Spanish-sounding word in order to cast cannabis as a scourge invading the country.
Anslinger went in front of the congressional panel to push his marijuana prohibition bill. He said that Americans “seem to have adopted the Mexican terminology and call it marihuana.”
Many people believe that while he sounded innocent, Anslinger was actively using the term marijuana/marihuana in order to focus the discussion on the drug’s recreational use. His use of the term distanced the plant from its common medicinal benefits and industrial uses, for which it was more often called cannabis or hemp.
As a result, using the term marijuana became most commonly associated with the recreational use of the plant among poor Mexican immigrants.
The Stranger also quoted Anslinger as saying:
There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.
Bienenstock pointed out that people who wanted to “demonize” cannabis used the exotic term marijuana in order to create a link in the minds of Americans.
Using cannabis vs. marijuana
Stiffler said that in his profession, and with all the time he had spent learning about cannabis legislation and regulatory measures in the U.S., he has found that the word used depends on which jurisdiction it is. He noted that the words cannabis, marijuana, and marihuana are applied in different local, state, and federal documents that refer to legalization efforts.
In Ohio, for instance, he noted that marijuana is the term most widely used. In Georgia, the drug is most commonly referred to as cannabis. Meanwhile, in Michigan, legislation efforts prefer to call it marihuana.
Many love using the word “pot” to refer to cannabis because it is short and sweet. And all the while, people think that it is somehow connected to a kitchen or cooking utensil.
The term is likely derived from the Mexican-Spanish word “potiguaya” or “potaguaya,” which, in turn, is a shortcut for “potación de guaya.” Potiguaya is a wine made from cannabis leaves or buds steeped in alcohol and it literally means “drink of grief.”
The alcohol used for potiguaya came from fermented tropical fruits called guayas (of course!). These round tropical fruits with soft flesh are indigenous to the tropics and to South and Central America.
Pot has been used as slang for cannabis since the late 1930s and early 1940s.
The word pot has permeated mainstream media and has become a favorite term among journalists. However, many cannabis activists and advocates do not like it because pot connotes a stoner sensibility.
Bienenstock said that the term should not be used lightly because it is a term that came from the underground. According to him, using pot when talking casually among friends is fine.
However, he said that it is different when you use it for, say, a news report referring to an important medical study. It may not be appropriate to the context, he added.
Weed is defined as a wild plant that grows in places where it is not wanted. It is also always competing with cultivated plants.
Weed is considered by many as the broadly hippest term for cannabis. It came from shady origins in Harlem during the 1930s.
Just as the term pot, weed may not be appropriate for use in official documents.
Hemp is part of the Cannabis plant family, but belongs to another strain. It is different from the cannabis (or marijuana) plant we know in terms of function, cultivation, and application. Marijuana and hemp serve completely different purposes.
While marijuana is used for medicinal or recreational purposes, hemp is used for mainly industrial applications, including textile, rope, paper, construction materials, dietary supplements, skin products, and accessories.
What’s more, the marijuana plant has short and fat leaves. It is also cultivated for its flowering buds, containing the psychoactive chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which creates the high. Cannabis naturally contains high levels of THC and low levels of cannabidiol (CBD), but there are some strains that are bred to contain lower levels of THC and higher levels of CBD.
Meanwhile, the hemp plant has narrow leaves and grows tall. Unlike cannabis, hemp naturally contains high levels of CBD and very low THC.
The term grass was in vogue during the 1960s and 1970s – in the days of flower power and hippies.
The widespread use of the word was fueled by its appearance: green and often resembling lawn clippings. What’s more, cannabis is mentioned in the sacred Hindu text Atharvaveda as “sacred grass,” and as one of India’s five sacred plants. Sacred grass is used as an offer to the god Shiva during rituals. It is also used for medicinal purposes.
The word ganja is inextricably associated with Jamaica. But contrary to what many believe, ganja is not really the Jamaicans’ word for cannabis.
The origins of the word are actually Hindi. The Hindi term for cannabis is ganjha. As to how it traveled to Jamaica, they have the British to thank for that.
When Britain outlawed slavery in the early 1800s, they still needed laborers to work for their plantations. So, the British Empire shipped tens of thousands of indentured laborers from India to Africa between 1845 to 1917. The Indians brought their ganja with them, smoking the leaves.
The Indian and Jamaican cultures merged together, and Jamaicans used ganja, too. Today, ganja is a central component of the Rastafarian movement.
The word dope originated from the Dutch word doop, which refers to a thick sauce. It started to gain popularity as a drug-related term in the late 1800s, used to describe smoking a semi-liquid opium preparation.
Dope was used as a term for cannabis, but it has since stopped. This is mainly because it is also a common term used to refer to heroin, or to illegal drugs en masse — including cocaine, meth, and opium.
The term “cheeba” came from the Spanish slang for heroin, chiva. Cheeba became the name they call black tar heroin.
The term cheeba gained popularity as a slang for cannabis as growers upped the quality of the crops and the buds became gooier. Needless to say, this innocent-sounding term carried with it some serious baggage.
What to call it?
For people who are looking for the appropriate way to call our beloved plant, Bienenstock said that “cannabis” is the way to go. And we agree.
But if you do not want to be strictly correct about it, pot and weed are also nice.
The truth is that we think we have come to the point where even terms with negative connotations, like marijuana, aren’t so offensive anymore. This is because they have become so widely used and accepted, and that the original negative intention for using them is long gone.
With more and more people accepting the medical benefits of marijuana, most of us do not even know that the word came from Mexico and was used by the government as part of its evil propaganda.
That is one good thing about increasing legalization.
Another is that with more states and more countries legalizing cannabis, there would be less new terms for the plant. This means that people will no longer find the need to create new names for cannabis just to avoid arrest or punishment. And so we can stop the confusion.