Cannabis vs. Marijuana: What’s in a name?

Today, the Spanish term ‘marijuana’ is more recognizable in the U.S. than ‘cannabis’. Sadly, its American usage began as an ethnic slur popularized by anti-narcotic crusaders to vilify cannabis. By calling it ‘marijuana’, politicians created the false impression that cannabis was introduced to the U.S. by Mexican immigrants and African-Americans, who themselves were vilified by much of American society. Does this sound far-fetched? Then read on.

What’s in a name? A lot, when it comes to the plant with the scientific designation Cannabis. The history of humanity’s relationship with Cannabis is found in the etymology of the words ‘cannabis’, ‘hashish’, ‘hemp’, and ‘marijuana’.

  • Cannabis in the ancient world
  • The etymology of cannabis and hashish
  • Cannabis and hemp in the modern world
  • The etymology of marijuana
  • Harry Anslinger and ‘marihuana’
  • William Woodward and ‘Cannabis’
  • The naming of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation

Cannabis in the ancient world

Humans have been using cannabis for at least 9,000 years. The earliest known woven fabrics, hemp-based textiles dating back to 7000 BCE, were discovered in Northern China. Charred hemp seeds, apparently burned as part of a religious ritual, have been found at a Romanian gravesite dating to 3500 BCE. The earliest evidence of medical cannabis use is found in the 2700-year-old grave of a Caucasoid shaman in Turpan, China, whose accoutrements included a large cache of cannabis, superbly preserved by climatic and burial conditions. Only the more psychoactive female plants were found, suggesting that they were employed by this culture as a medicinal or psychoactive agent, or as an aid to divination. In India, clear evidence for cannabis use dates from 2000 to 1400 BCE, and in Egypt, cannabis pollen was found on the mummified remains of Pharaoh Rameses II, circa 1200 BCE. In the first millennium BCE, hemp was a major agricultural crop and industry, providing fabric for clothing and sails, rope, paper, canvases, medicine, lamp oil, and food.

The etymology of cannabis and hashish

A popular but dubious etymological connection links the word ‘cannabis’ and the Biblical Hebrew term kana bosm (an anointing oil, directly translated as ‘fragrant reed’). The latter could refer to any of a number of plants and is more likely to be lemon grass or calamus. The etymology of “cannabis” begins conclusively with the ancient Greeks. They borrowed the term from the Thracians or Scythians, who cultivated psychoactive varieties of the plant in the first millennium BCE. There may yet be an etymological connection with ancient Hebrew, as the Greek word kanna (meaning ‘reed’ or ‘cane’) has its origins in Semitic languages. Hence from the ancient kanna we derive the English words ‘cannabis’, ‘cane’, and even ‘canvas’. A frequently repeated myth is that the medieval Muslim minority Nizali Ismaili, also known by the derogatory term Assassins, would go on murderous rampages after the consumption of hashish (the Arabic term for cannabis and its psychoactive derivatives). While the word hashish did lend itself to the name Assassin, the xenophobic connection of hashish to murder appears to begin with later European writers.

Cannabis and hemp in the modern world

Psychoactive cannabis was introduced to modern Europe by French soldiers returning from Napoleon’s 1798-1801 campaign in Egypt and Syria, where hashish was used recreationally. The Scottish physician William O’Shaughnessy, MD published the first article about medicinal properties of cannabis in 1839, while he was working as a surgeon and scientist in India. The medical use of cannabis spread throughout Europe beginning in the 1840s, while its use in America began in the 1850s. From the late 1800s through the early 1900s, cannabis served as an ingredient in numerous tinctures and extracts, where it was exclusively called Cannabis indica, or Indian hemp.

The earliest attested English word for cannabis is actually ‘hemp’, which can be traced to the proto-Germanic term hanapiz. This is probably a variant of the Scythian term that also gave rise to the Greek kannabis. Thus, although the similarity isn’t obvious, ‘hemp’ and ‘cannabis’ are etymologically related. In American English usage, ‘hemp’ is generally used to refer to the non-psychoactive varieties of Cannabis, as well as the fiber products derived from them. Industrial hemp farming was widespread in the United States from colonial times until marijuana prohibition began in 1937, at which time the crop was eradicated throughout the nation. Nonetheless, hemp farming made a brief reappearance during World War II because of the fiber’s utility in the war effort and the high yield of this hardy plant.

The etymology of marijuana

English usage of the term ‘marijuana’ may be traced to Mexican immigrants and African-Americans in the early 20th century. Latino immigrants introduced another name for cannabis, which was the Mexican/Spanish word marihuana. While likely adopted by Mexican Spanish speakers from a pre-Columbian native language, the exact etymology of marihuana is unclear. The spelling ‘marijuana’ was a 20th century American invention, probably influenced by the spelling of the Spanish name Juana. Amusingly, the spelling ‘marijuana’ made its way into French and even back to Spanish, much to the chagrin of the Real academia española (Royal Spanish Academy), which does not officially recognize the corrupted spelling. The use of marihuana by immigrant Mexicans and African-Americans, like the minority groups themselves, was viewed with suspicion by white Americans. This concern paralleled the slightly earlier xenophobic association of Asians and opium use in the United States, where many whites regarded the Asian-American communities as undesirable. This fear, coupled with the drug use itself, led to our first laws regulating narcotics in the early 1900s.The use of marihuana by immigrant Mexicans and African-Americans, like the minority groups themselves, was viewed with suspicion by white Americans.

In early 20th century laws restricting opioid drugs, both cannabis and alcohol were sometimes inaccurately defined as narcotics, although alcohol eventually shed this association. Cannabis, however, was labeled as a poison and increasingly connected with opioids, even though knowledgeable physicians recognized this association as lacking any pharmacologic or scientific merit. The authoritative Oxford English Dictionary confirms that the term ‘marihuana’ was unknown in common English usage until the 1920s, when anti-drug crusaders identified and opposed the recreational use of cannabis by American jazz musicians and entertainers, many of whom were African-American. Its rise in popularity during that time may be attributed in part to the scarcity of alcohol during Alcohol Prohibition.

Harry Anslinger and ‘marihuana’

The stage was now set for Harry J. Anslinger, who was appointed as the first commissioner of the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930. Around 1934, he began a vigorous media campaign highlighting the purported dangers of “marihuana,” rarely clarifying that this was the same plant and drug known to all physicians and most Americans as cannabis or Indian hemp. While Anslinger’s motives for targeting cannabis remain the subject of debate, many of his cringe-worthy statements at the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act hearings include a lack of scientific understanding of the drug, vague and often unverifiable case histories, and outright falsehoods. For example:

I believe in some cases one [marihuana] cigarette might develop a homicidal mania, probably to kill his brother. It depends on the physical characteristics of the individual. Every individual reacts differently to the drug. It stimulates some and others it depresses. It is impossible to say just what the action of the drug will be on a given individual, of the amount. Probably some people could smoke five before it would take that effect, but all the experts agree that the continued use leads to insanity. There are many cases of insanity. -Congressional testimony on H.R. 6385, April 1937

William Woodward and ‘Cannabis’

The passage of the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act effectively outlawed the growth, sale and possession of cannabis. It was introduced to Congress without consulting the American Medical Association (AMA), which was against the general practice of the time. The AMA’s legal counsel, William C. Woodward, MD, LLM, LLD, protested the exclusion of his organization from the proceedings, and the hearings were extended to allow his appearance and that of representatives of the hemp industry. Woodward, one of America’s foremost public health experts of his time, lambasted the secrecy of the Congressional hearings, advocated regulation rather than prohibition, and noted that even the name of the Marihuana Tax Act was misleading to the medical community and the general public:

There is nothing in the medicinal use of Cannabis that has any relation to Cannabis addiction. I use the word ‘Cannabis’ in preference to the word ‘marihuana,’ because Cannabis is the correct term for describing the plant and its products…. In other words, marihuana is not the correct term. It was the use of the term ‘marihuana’ rather than the use of the term ‘Cannabis’ or the use of the term ‘Indian hemp’ that was responsible, as you realized, probably, a day or two ago, for the failure of the dealers in Indian hempseed to connect up this bill with their business until rather late in the day. So, if you will permit me, I shall use the word ‘Cannabis’, and I should certainly suggest that if any legislation is enacted, the term used be ‘Cannabis’ and not the mongrel word ‘marihuana.’ -from Taxation of Marihuana, hearings before the House Committee on Ways and Means, 75th Cong., 1st Sess. (April 27-30 and May 4, 1937)

Dr. Woodward’s outrage fell on deaf ears, and the term ‘cannabis’ was subsequently suppressed along with the plant itself. As a final insult to the medical community, when the House passed the Marihuana Tax Act, Rep. Fred Vinson (D, KY) falsely reported to Congress that,

Our committee heard testimony of Dr. William Wharton [sic], who not only gave this measure his full support, but also the approval from the American Medical Association which he represented as legislative counsel. -81 Cong. Rec., 7625 (1937)

The naming of Doctors for Cannabis RegulationIn naming their organization, the founders of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation have chosen to reclaim the proper medical name of the drug and scientific name of the plant.

Today, the Spanish term ‘marijuana’ is more recognizable and commonly used in the U.S. than ‘cannabis’. Nonetheless, we must recognize that its American usage began as an ethnic slur popularized by anti-narcotic crusaders to vilify cannabis. By calling it ‘marijuana’, a group of politicians created the false impression that cannabis was introduced to the U.S. by Mexican immigrants and African-Americans, who themselves were vilified by much of American society. Thus, in naming their organization, the founders of DFCR have chosen to reclaim the proper medical name of the drug and scientific name of the plant, which the prescient Dr. Woodward fought in vain to preserve over 80 years ago. We hope that our colleagues in the medical community will join us in this symbolic correction of history, just as we strive to correct the grave mistake made in 1937, when our government abandoned science and prohibited a plant and drug that it should have regulated instead.