The word marijuana has a unique history here in the cannabis world and many of us choose not to use it for the racial implications it holds in the United States but let us take a look at the whole history. Give it a read and then you tell us, does this history give you pause to use the word marijuana?
Throughout world history cannabis has been used for a variety of different things from the beginning of canvas to the current studies that are being done for cannabis use as an alternative medicine. In the 16th century during the Italian Renaissance. Venetian painters utilized canvas because it was easier for them to use in a humid environment than frescos or wood panels. Many also used cannabis to make sails as it is a more sturdy material when wet then the previously used cotton.
During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s we begin to see cannabis become accepted within medicinal practices and treatments in the US and Europe, as pharmaceutical companies started capitalizing on cannabis extracts within medications. Multiple medications were produced that explicitly claimed cannabis aided in things like “restlessness,” pain, and nausea.
As far as the origin of the word Marijuana is concerned we know that the Spanish brought cannabis to Mexico to cultivate it for hemp. One theory is that Chinese immigrants to western Mexico lent the plant its name as a combination of syllables that could have referred to the plant in Chinese (ma ren hua) later to become Spanishized into "marijuana." Another theory is that it came from a colloquial Spanish way of saying "Chinese oregano", mejorana (chino). Then there is even the history of the word that comes from Angolan slaves and African slaves brought to Brazil by the Portuguese who carried with them the Bantu word for cannabis: ma-kaña, who were allowed to grow crops cannabis to smoke. Or maybe the term simply originated in South America itself, as a portmanteau of the Spanish girl's names Maria and Juana.
So how did all of this lead to the world we know today?
Simply put before the 1900s, the term “marijuana” simply did not exist in the English language. Prior to this time, the cannabis plant was primarily referred to as cannabis or hemp, with hash also being extremely popular for the upper-class in the late 1800s. Prior to this, as we established, cannabis was primarily utilized within medicinal practices and alternative medicines. The plant’s psychoactive properties were known; however, the idea of enjoying just for fun wasn’t seen frequently in the US just yet. In order to understand why we must first understand the climate of the United States at the time.
Between the 1910s and the 1930s immense change came to the US. During this time there were 4 key things affecting the climate in the US. The Mexican Revolution, the Birth of the Jazz Age, Prohibition, and the beginning of the Great Depression. For starters between 1910 and 1920 almost 600,00 Mexican immigrants traveled from Mexico to the United States, fleeing from the horrors of the Mexican Revolution. Jazz music began to take hold in 1918 as World War I ended and Jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Chick Webb began to travel from from New Orleans to major northern cities such as Chicago and New York, leading to a wider dispersal of jazz as different styles developed in different cities. This intern led to the increase in popularity of nightclubs. Women and Churches largely stood on the forefront of Prohibition in 1919 as the rise in evangelical Protestantism brought the idea that along with urban growth, saloon culture is corrupt and ungodly.
It was during this time that cannabis, and the term marijuana, began to catch on. Some say its emergence was brought about by Prohibition and Jazz while others believed with the arrival of immigrants came an increased idea of enjoying cannabis recreationally. Its recreational use was largely restricted to jazz musicians and people in show business. “Reefer songs” became the rage of the jazz world. There were even some cannabis clubs called tea pads that sprang up in cities like Chicago. These establishments were tolerated by the authorities because marijuana was not illegal and patrons showed no evidence of making a nuisance of themselves or disturbing the community. Marijuana was not, yet, considered a social threat.
This is when we began to see reports that this drug, “marijuana,” caused superhuman strength, violent actions, and even a “lust for blood” incited panic, effectively blaming Mexican immigrants for the introduction of such substance and all brown people for it’s recreational use. Thus, the term “marihuana,” or “marijuana” was born out of hate. A campaign conducted in the 1930s by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics, now the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, sought to portray marijuana as a powerful addictive substance that would cause some users to become violent. This was largely fueled by a man named Harry Anslinger.
It would not be an overstatement to say that Harry Anslinger was one of the primary individuals responsible for creating the stigma surrounding cannabis as he was the first director of the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930. Anslinger launched a campaign against cannabis that would hold steady for the three decades he remained in office. He was known for testifying in front of Congress saying things like “Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind… Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage.” In another statement, Anslinger stated, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.”
The term marijuana became a word known by Americans all over the country. Anslinger made a point to use the word specifically when making public appearances and crafting propaganda films such as Reefer Madness. He did this intentionally adding to the development of the herb’s new “foreign” identity. Cannabis was no longer the plant substance found in medicines and consumed unanimously by American’s all over the country. Cannabis was outlawed because various powerful interests (some of which have economic motives to suppress hemp production) were able to craft it into a bogeyman in the popular imagination, by spreading tales of homicidal mania touched off by consumption of the dreaded Mexican "locoweed." Fear of brown people combined with fear of nightmare drugs used by brown people to produce a wave of public action against the "marijuana menace." That combo led to restrictions in state after state, ultimately resulting in federal prohibition.
Today we have the clarity of truth, and also enough time has passed since legalization to statistically prove that this plant simply doesn't deserve the stigma, nor do the very people once demonized for using it. In fact, we should truly be thanking the cultures who first championed and helped more people to discover this amazing botanical. As a dispensary with the future in mind we want to make sure that all history is brought to light and that the root for words actions are brought to light. But what do you think about the word marijuana and will you use it now having read why it became popular in the United States.
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The Herbalist Team at Breeze Botanical's uses our collective educational experiences and on-going thirst for knowledge to normalize the conversation around herbs and to demystify the world of herbal medicine. Join us on this journey and embrace the plants around you.