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Where Exactly Did the Word “Marijuana” Come From?

It has a lot of names, pot, weed, dope, hash, I could go on, but perhaps the most commonly known word around the country might just be marijuana. But where exactly did that word come from? And why does that single word bring out so many negative feelings and emotions towards our little green friend? There is a rich, political, cultural and controversial history behind all of this. The “M” word has built up quite the reputation over the last hundred years in America and to find the story of how “marijuana” began we must travel back to late 1800’s.

It is disturbingly not widely known that in America during the mid to late 1800’s, marijuana was not only used but glamorized by upper class America as a result of celebrity use. Of course back then it was called by its birth name if you will, cannabis. Sourced most oftenly for the remedy to several household ailments, it was even used in medicines created by now renowned pharmaceutical giants Bristol-Meyer’s Squib and Eli Lilly. During this time, hundreds of scientific articles were published touting the many scientific benefits of cannabis and cannabis products.

Around 1910, the same time of the Mexican Revolution is when the story begins for “marijuana”. In the following decade, close to 900,000 Mexican immigrants, legally make their way to America bringing with them their own cannabis culture. Mexicans exposed Americans to actually smoking the herb. Variations of the spelling differ (marijuana, marihuana, mariguana) depending on the storyteller or source but what is certain is cannabis slowly became known as marijuana as a result through cross cultural exposure.

Unfortunately, this is also the part of the story that takes a turn for the worse for cannabis. Anti-immigrant fears and sentiment began to sweep across the southwestern portion of the country and took with it a small but growing negative view towards “marijuana”. In 1914, anti cannabis laws began to pop up, particularly in border states. In these laws they referred to it not as cannabis but as marijuana. Some say this was done purposefully to tie in the plant and its “evils” with the wave of immigrants arriving.


Fast forward a couple years later to the early onset of the great depression, Mexican and West Indian immigrants would be found in the gulf states where anti-marijuana laws had yet to be enforced. “Marijuana” found its way into the root system of jazz music and it is here where the media created a whirlwind storm for cannabis that it is yet to recover from. Headlines with terms like “locoweed” and “murderweed” flooded mainstream media outlets creating a deep fear and resentment towards not only cannabis but to immigrants and African Americans. Marijuana use was tied to “druggie” musicians, prostitutes and low level citizen groups. By the early 1930’s, some twenty-nine states had banned the use of marijuana.

Enter Harry Anslinger. The director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics came into his position of power in 1930. From the very beginning he was anti-marijuana. So much so that he went on a cross country tour making as many stops as possible to speak to the public about the dangers and fears the American people needed to know about regarding this dreadful drug. He would have meetings with local senators, trying to petition a complete ban on marijuana.

When speaking to senators with large immigrant populations, it very much helped to portray drugs as something external, something that is invading our country. He would use the term “marijuana” knowing very well that it sounds much more foreign. Anslinger allegedly  kept files on famous jazz musicians titled “Marijuana and Musicians,” and kept close tabs on band mates who played alongside Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington, among many others. In 1937, he published a report titled “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth”.

This helped kick off his federal campaign to completely abolish cannabis. That same year, Anslinger testified before Congress. He is purportedly on record as saying, “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.” His smear campaign against cannabis ultimately won out and later on in that same year, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, criminalizing the ownership of “marijuana” and “marijuana” products throughout the country.

So there we have it. The dark, divisive story of “marijuana”. The story is not fully written yet of course. With every passing day we inch closer to a nation openly accepting this marvelous green plant and all its benefits. It is a battle that may last several more years, but it is absolutely something that is worth fighting for. Simply look to the past when seemingly one man in a position of power brought cannabis down to the lowest depths imaginable and realize the power a unified people can have to reverse that course of action.