Weed Words

Weed Words: Marijuana – Unpacking its Complicated History

Episode 133

Show Notes

The History of Weed Word "Marijuana"

Today’s episode is all about the word “marijuana,” a term that many people might not realize is intertwined with a complicated, hurtful, and quite-frankly racist history. If you weren’t aware of the weight the word “marijuana” carries — you’re not alone, and this episode will help shed light on its convoluted past. Our series Weed Words is where each month we unpack a widely recognized but narrowly understood term or phrase related to cannabis.

Listen to the Episode


Listen on



Ellen Lee Scanlon (00:00):

This podcast discusses cannabis, and is intended for audiences 21 and over. Welcome to How To Do The Pot, a podcast demystifying cannabis for women. I’m Ellen Scanlon. Today’s episode is part of our series called Weed Words, where we pick a tricky telling, or thought provoking term, or sometimes it’s a funny fictitious or factual phrase. And we explore all the ins and outs of that weed word so that you can do the pot with confidence.

Ellen Lee Scanlon (00:36):

You’ve heard this plant called a lot of names, weed, cannabis, pot, grass, herb, Mary Jane. And you’ve probably heard these words in association with 4/20, the high holiday that takes place every year on April 20th. The term 4/20 was coined in the 1970s and has grown into a worldwide celebration of cannabis culture. Right now in April 2022, there are 18 states in the US that allow adult use of cannabis, which means anyone over 21, and medical use is allowed in 38 states. But it’s hard to talk about 4/20 without recognizing that 40,000 people are still in prison in the US for cannabis crimes. And did you know that while Black and White people consume cannabis at the same rates, Black people are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis.

Ellen Lee Scanlon (01:41):

So today in honor of 4/20 and all the cannabis advocates who have worked so hard for legalization and an equitable industry, we are going to talk about a word that may surprise you with its history. Today’s weed word is marijuana. It’s a word so synonymous with cannabis, and sometimes it’s used interchangeably, but as we’ll learn today, it’s a complicated term with a pretty sorted past. Alyssa Yeoman is a marketing manager at Leafly, the world’s largest cannabis information resource and a co-host of Leafly’s podcast, The Roll-Up. I asked her about the word marijuana and why she thinks it’s so mainstream.

Alyssa Yeoman (02:37):

I think it’s because the government has an impact on how we talk about things and the language we use for things. In my opinion, marijuana is so someone who’s maybe not yet interacting with the plant regularly, or maybe hasn’t interacted with the plant, which I think is why we can know it’s still searched so much, because people are trying to discover what it’s about. And I think once you’re deeper into that discovery, then you’ll start using terms like cannabis or weed, and marijuana would drop out of your vocabulary at that point. The origins of marijuana, the word itself comes from oppressive and racist place. Although it’s lost some of its bite, because we often don’t think about the history of the word, it’s still a racist word. Just basically all POCs were lumped into these marijuana users. So, that’s who it’s racist against

Ellen Lee Scanlon (03:31):

To fully understand this, let’s talk about what, to most people, is a secret history about cannabis. So to the time machine. Cannabis has been consumed for thousands of years, all across the world. A few notable and very old examples include the ancient Egyptians who used cannabis as a holy anointing oil. The ancient Chinese who detailed over a hundred different medicinal uses for the plant. And in India, the Hindu God, Shiva, is fable to have rested under a cannabis plant and eaten its leaves. The ancient Greek and Roman and Arabic cultures all have records using the plant. But how do we get from this ancient past to today’s use of the word marijuana? For that, we need to travel to the Americas, specifically, the United States

Ellen Lee Scanlon (04:38):

Back in the early 1600s, hemp was grown in the US like any other crop. Ropes, sales and textiles were all made from it. By the 1700s it was common, and president George Washington even explored the possibility of using cannabis medicinally in his journals. By the 1800s, cannabis was widely accepted as medicine and was in many mainstream products. It was added to the US Pharmacopeia which contained recipes for the formulation of popular medicines, and was listed as a treatment for opioid withdrawal, appetite stimulation, pain, and as an antinausea medicine. To show you a how mainstream it was, by the late 1800s, Vanity Fair Magazine, even advertised for a hashish candy, that was “a pleasurable and harmless stimulant that could cure melancholy and nervousness.” Hashish was glamorized by celebrities and enjoyed by the wealthy. And the ad wasn’t considered radical. By 1900 cannabis was a widely used ingredient in many different American made medications.

Ellen Lee Scanlon (05:51):

So what happened? The US was introduced to the word marijuana. Cannabis had been here for hundreds of years, but it wasn’t until 1910 when the word marijuana first appeared. Up until that point, the plant was just cannabis. What’s significant about 1910? From then until 1920, nearly a million Mexican immigrants legally immigrated to the United States to escape the Mexican Revolution. These immigrants consumed cannabis differently. They smoked it recreationally, a method that really hadn’t been widely adopted by people in the US. Cannabis had been consumed for its intoxicating effect in hashish candies, and medicines like tinctures, but now a different culture was bringing its love of cannabis to the states.

Alyssa Yeoman (06:46):

Essentially prior to 1910, the word marijuana wasn’t even in the American vocabulary. Marijuana is a Mexican-Spanish term. Maybe if you’ve seen it spelled with an H, that’s where that comes from. And so when that started to happen and people came over, that’s when they started calling it locoweed.

Ellen Lee Scanlon (07:05):

It became known as the Mexican menace. Anti-drug advocates and anti-Mexican immigrant advocates began to rebrand the plant. They worked to ensure that cannabis was no longer thought of as a medicinal herb enjoyed for thousands of years. It became a degraded, immoral activity that was negatively associated with Mexican immigrants. People started calling it locoweed, loco, a Spanish word for crazy, and marijuana spelled with an H instead of a J, so that English speaking Americans would recognize the pronunciation of the word. By 1913, the first bill banning locoweed passed in California. Within the next decade, 25 other states passed laws banning cannabis. Without any public outcry, or much political debate, anti-cannabis propaganda was in all the headlines, usually with marijuana spelled with an H. And things only got worse for the plant from there. By the 1930s, the Great Depression began to affect millions of Americans. Unemployment was widespread, and those that didn’t lose their jobs faced pay cuts. The previous influx of Mexican immigrants meant that there was a surplus in the labor force and the added competition for work meant that the disdain for Mexican-American only grew.

Alyssa Yeoman (08:42):

Cuba guy named Harry Anslinger, he is all about reefer madness, is ready to direct this newly created federal bureau of narcotics and comes out saying, marijuana is the most violence causing drug. And at the time, while as jazz and stuff was on the upswing, use that to say, “Hey, marijuana is only used by these dark skin people to make them feel like they are as good as White people.” Yeah, that was essentially one of the quotes that he said. And he used this, went on his own little marijuana tour, created reefer madness. And then that led to that Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, where it became federally criminalized in the US.

Ellen Lee Scanlon (09:35):

You might remember hearing about Harry Anslinger in our paranoia weed word’s episode. He was the first director of the federal bureau of narcotics, and the godfather of Reefer Madness, the propaganda movement and film responsible for stirring up a lot of the fear and paranoia around cannabis that still exists today. In case you haven’t seen this now cult classic film, here’s a clip from the reefer madness trailer.

Speaker 3 (10:08):

These high school boys and girls are having a hop at the local soda fountain, innocently they dance. Innocent of a new and deadly menace lurking behind closed doors, marijuana, the burning weed with its roots in hell.

Ellen Lee Scanlon (10:26):

For more on reefer madness, check out our paranoia episode, which I’ll link to in the show notes.

Alyssa Yeoman (10:32):

Before this, and before the 1910, people were using it pretty much you unanimously as medicine and in the home. But with that coming in and people looking for someone to blame during the Great Depression and reefer madness, all coinciding, that’s where we have the term marijuana come into play.

Ellen Lee Scanlon (10:50):

In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed. Marijuana, again, being spelled with an H instead of a J. This tax made the plant expensive and only wealthy, primarily White people could access cannabis. It’s not a big leap to surmise, this was an effort to prevent people of color from consuming cannabis, while still allowing richer White-Americans an opportunity to enjoy the plant. By the early 1940s, cannabis was removed from the US Pharmacopeia and discredited. And in the early 1950s, the Boggs Act passed strict, mandatory punishments for cannabis consumers. Then came the 1960s. And the counterculture movement started to question this narrative. President John F. Kennedy and vice president Lydon Johnson, commissioned reports that found that cannabis did not lead to more dangerous drugs, or induce violence.

Alyssa Yeoman (11:53):

And then we get to the part where we’re at the war on drugs. So this is from, we fast forward from 1930s to 1980. People are still scared of marijuana. Still associating it with people of color who are bringing in “darkness and all of these bad things,” and Reagan decides to use the term marijuana when doing the war on drugs. And so marijuana becomes the term that lawmakers are using, and that they’re using to demonize people.

Ellen Lee Scanlon (12:25):

This was the era that gave us former first lady, Nancy Reagan’s, Just Say No campaign, and president Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which equated marijuana with heroin. As Alyssa Yeoman just said, it was really used to demonize people, especially people of color. And a lot of the effects of this history are still felt heavily today. Christine De La Rosa, the co-founder and CEO of The People’s Ecosystem, shares what it was like to tell her traditional Mexican parents about consuming cannabis to help with the symptoms of the autoimmune disease, lupus.

Christine De La Rosa (13:05):

And so I said, I came home because I really wanted to talk to you about something. And they’re like, oh, okay. What do you want to talk about? And I said, well, I said, the reason I look this way, the reason I feel this way, the reason I was able to get on a plane, the reason my doctors cleared me for the plane is because I have been using cannabis to help me with my lupus. And it’s been very transformative. And I remember my mother, my dad’s looking down, my mother’s trying to compute what I’m saying. And I said, mom, you told me when I was growing up, don’t smoke marihuana because they’re going to think you’re a lazy Mexican. I said, and what I realized that this propaganda that we were sold as people of color has kept us from being able to heal holistically. I said, so I’ve decided to go into the cannabis business, and I didn’t even finish the sentence. And my mother said in Spanish, I’ll translate for you. She was like, why are you always shaming the family? It’s just like, I’m not shaming the family.

Christine De La Rosa (14:05):

It was comical now, but I remember just feeling so, oh my God, I’m crushing my mother. And then I said to her, I said, mom, I said, you were there with me when I was on the floor and telling you I was dying, and my house was a hot mess. I said, do you see me now? I’m not walking with a cane. I was able to get on a plane. I said, do you see my eyes are brighter, my skin looks healthier? And she’s like, yes. And I said, I would not be here today. I said, imagine all of the people in the US and around the world that are in that same place right now. And it’s important that there’s people of color that own in the industry because other people of color will see that. And all of the propaganda that they’ve been sold about being lazy Mexicans, if they smoke mariahuana, being drug lords, being cartel people, is dispelled when they see themselves reflected in the industry that’s legal.

Christine De La Rosa (14:59):

And so what I would tell other people that come from deeply religious backgrounds, that come from deeply conservative areas, is to really just talk honestly with your people, whether it’s your family or your friends, and explain to them why you’re using it. And if you say, I want to use it because I’m a recreational pot smoker, you also tell them that. There’s nothing wrong with this. We’ve been told that there was something wrong. There was a set of propaganda that was put forth to say it’s wrong, but it’s actually not wrong. It’s a plant. Let me tell you what’s wrong. What’s wrong is pharmaceutical company making billions of dollars creating [oxycodone 00:15:35], that’s wrong.

Ellen Lee Scanlon (15:36):

Christine’s story is a powerful reminder of the lingering effects of the decades of anti-marijuana propaganda that flooded the media and deeply affected people of color, especially the Mexican-American community. And while there is still a lot of work to be done, I believe that speaking about the plant without the added weight of a history of exclusion and prejudice definitely helps, especially when we talk about it in English, in the United States. And yet for many of us, the choice to use, or not use the word marijuana isn’t steeped in social justice or political knowledge, it’s a regurgitation of a term we’ve heard for decades, probably without thinking much about it. But is marijuana an appropriate word to use? Alyssa Yeoman shares her thoughts?

Alyssa Yeoman (16:32):

That’s a great question. I think cannabis is the appropriate term to use. It’s the Latin term for it. It’s the plant name. It was the term that people were using for it before they started using it to oppress other people. That’s when the switch happened. I think when it comes to talking about cannabis and marijuana and the history of both the term marijuana, and I think you really can’t talk about cannabis without talking about the war on drugs. I think the best thing you can always do is remain open. And I think people are often scared to approach conversations with those who are already very enthusiastic about cannabis, because we have all this knowledge, we are keeping up with the latest, but I think that can come off as almost the latest in a way where there is the gate keeping and there’s all this information that someone new coming into it isn’t going to know. And then immediately will feel dumb for not knowing something.

Alyssa Yeoman (17:34):

I found out through education myself, that marijuana was a Mexican-Spanish word, I wouldn’t have known that before. And now when I think about it and I hear it, I hear how, yeah, this isn’t a word that came from the English language. But anytime you have those conversations, I think just going in open, non-judgmental and just prepared to be patient with people, knowing that many people are still scared of marijuana, whether that be because of stigma, family, upbringing, or because of a bad experience that they had when they first tried it with someone who wasn’t necessarily looking out for the best interest.

Ellen Lee Scanlon (18:15):

The words you use are, of course, up to you. And I hope explaining why this particular weed word isn’t our favorite gives you a better understanding of the deep history of cannabis in our culture.

Ellen Lee Scanlon (18:34):

Thank you for listening to marijuana on Weed Words. Please reach out with any questions to hi@dothepot.com or DM us @dothepot. For lots more information and past episodes, visit dothepot.com. And that’s also where you can sign up for our newsletter, which comes out every other Friday. If you’d like updates on new episodes and some behind the seeds with our guests, follow dothepot on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, or Twitter. And if you like How To Do The Pot, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. It helps more people find the show. Thanks to Madi Fair, our brand manager, our writer, Melia Grasska, and our producer, Nick Patri, I’m Ellen Scanlon. And we’ll be back soon with more of How To Do The Pot.



How to Buy Weed
Everything Women Need to Know About CBD Oil Tincture
Cannabis Recipes: How to Make Cannabutter
The Next Best Weed Strains: 12 Alternatives

We cover legal weed

So you must be legal, too. Age 21+ invited to continue.


This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website.