The ‘M’ Word: The History of ‘Marijuana,’ and Should You Stop Saying It?

'Weed' is a strong alternative. Use 'cannabis' if you're kind of uptight.

The word marijuana rolls off the tongue. Today, it’s commonly used to describe the right type of cannabis, the type that will get you high. I say it all the time, especially around here. Just last week an old couple touring our shared co-working space asked me what it is that I do here, and I said, “We are a cannabis-friendly site.” She choked on her spa water and said, “You mean canvas?” I shook my head. She laughed, wickedly, and said, “You mean, like, marijuana?”

That word. Everyone knows it. It’s just marijuana, the drug of choice for nearly 14 million Americans who use it every day.

There are hundreds (okay, thousands) of variations of words to describe marijuana. Yes, each rolled joint is your special snowflake, but so many names have popped up for this former roadside shrub since it emerged as a form of intoxication that there are books and websites dedicated to keeping up with new weed slang. 

But lately, I’ve reconsidered saying marijuana at all. The word itself has a rough and emotional past and, specifically, it’s been used to exploit Mexican immigrants.


Marijuana is a Mexican slang word for cannabis that gets you high. Not the medical term, first noted as cannabis in the early 1900s medical journals, for a specific plant that was found to provide positive medical benefits to patients.

Smoking weed, a fun form of intoxication, was introduced to American culture in 1910 by Mexican immigrants escaping the perils of the Mexican Revolution. At first, the refugees were mostly welcomed to the US, and filled in as much-needed laborers in agriculture and local industries.

But Mexican immigration isn’t exclusively a story of journeying to freedom and prosperity.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

During the early 1900s, roughly 100,000 people of Mexican descent or birth were living in the United States. Many toiled in much needed agricultural and industry roles. By 1930, more than 1.5 million Mexican immigrants were living and working in the US, a mass of consumers-with-income who had contributed directly to the success of the U.S. economy—while it was booming.

With the number of Mexican-American residents steadily rising, the U.S. passed the Immigration Act of 1924. The Immigration Act established the federal Border Patrol and officially launched selective and aggressive policing of the Mexican population “problem.”

As impoverished survivors of the Midwest dustbowl of European origin headed west, desperate for any kind of job, workers from south of the border were needed less and less. So the U.S. cracked down on immigration laws. Even after the Great Depression had lifted, the government had no need for such a large (and seemingly unwanted) brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking population.

And the word marijuana was directly tied to this population of unwanted people.

Enter Harry J. Anslinger, an everyday monster of his time who served as the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. In charge of deciding if and how dangerous weed was to the American people, in 1936 good ol’ Anslinger commissioned a very absurd propaganda movie, Reefer Madness, that depicted pot smokers as impressionable teenagers who smoke weed and descend into madness, rape and murder.

In describing weed, Anslinger deliberately chose to use the word marijuana over the term cannabis, which was once revered as a medical breakthrough by American medical journals. Anslinger theorized that marijuana sounded scary in an ethnic way, and that the foreign-sounding word would instill fear in basic Americans of the time.

But why stoke the anxiety against foreign influence? One, Anslinger was openly racist and quite terrible; also, he was working for a government that was hounding Mexican immigrants who were moving to or residing in the U.S.

Anslinger said some pretty insane things about weed, and about people who smoked it. Like when he quipped, “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.” 

So maybe, just maybe, employing the scary Mexican word for weed wasn’t just about keeping drugs out of wild teenager hands and preventing American youths from going sex and kill crazy. Maybe vocabulary choice was about denigrating the Mexican population all together. In his weed findings, Anslinger stressed that marijuana was deadly, and brought to the U.S. by foreign immigrants who in his eyes (and let’s be real, probably the U.S. government’s too) were just as dangerous as the toxic substance in their tobacco pouches.

When the unskilled labor jobs dried up, the growing Mexican population was even more unwanted.

But how, dear American government, will you demonize an unwanted population, now that you don’t need them anymore? How will you popularize this perceived population problem with the basic, white general public?

Simple. Tell your people that Mexicans are dangerous. Exploit the immigrants’ use of cannabis. Call that scary stuff by the sinister-sounding tag marijuana whenever possible.

Image via Rebelianci 

Get your friends in the fourth estate, such as open racist William Randolph Hearst, to exploit the word whenever they can, slapping marijuana onto yellow-tinged newspapers to paint unfair, devastating and intermingled pictures of a drug and an entire population of people.

Despite all the time that’s passed since Anslinger headed up the Bureau of Narcotics, the War on Drugs is still a war on immigration, and the word marijuana itself has been in the battle from the start, wielded to exploit an entire population.

I try not to be so hard on myself about saying marijuana, but I’m not the only one who attempts to edit this historical slur out of polite conversation.

Many official cannabis organizations refuse to use the word. Some groups have altogether boycotted anyone using the word, and perhaps for good reason. It’s not an official term, but has hopefully lost its sad and racist beginnings in the decades since informed opinion reached consensus that Reefer Madness is a work of total and dishonest idiocy.

Still, I keep in mind that marijuana is a slang word brought across the border by a group of people who to this day are at risk of being turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents if captured with half a joint in a shirt pocket while on the way home from work.