Why Do We Call It 'Marijuana'?

The drug has many monikers, but did race and prejudice lead to one of them?

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Cannabis is known by many names: weed, reefer, pot ... the list goes on. But one of its most common monikers, "marijuana," has its roots in Mexico. But why?

An article at the NPR blog Code Switch discusses the racially charged history of the word "marijuana" and how the drug stirred anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. and then became criminalized. 

Throughout the 19th century, news reports and medical journal articles almost always use the plant's formal name, cannabis. Numerous accounts say that "marijuana" came into popular usage in the U.S. in the early 20th century because anti-cannabis factions wanted to underscore the drug's "Mexican-ness." It was meant to play off of anti-immigrant sentiments.

A common version of the story of the criminalization of pot goes like this: 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.

But this version of the story starts to prompt more questions than answers when you take a close look at the history of the drug in the U.S.: What role did race actually play in the perception of the drug? Are historical accounts of pot usage -- including references to Mexican "locoweed" -- even talking about the same drug we know as marijuana today? How did the plant and its offshoots get so many darn names (reefer, pot, weed, hashish, dope, ganja, bud, and on and on and on) anyway? And while we're on the subject, how did it come to be called "marijuana"?

Read more at NPR's Code Switch.

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