How the word “marijuana” was co-opted to promote racist policies.
By Michelle Barbee-Vargas — December 15, 2020
While the language we use to talk about cannabis is ever-evolving, there is one word that just about everyone knows: marijuana. But for a word so ubiquitous in the United States and beyond, many do not actually know its origins.
Used to describe the cannabis sativa flower, the term marijuana became popular in the United States in the 1900s. Cannabis was already being used throughout the US when, in the 1930s, Harry Anslinger was appointed as the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. This appointment was a symptom of, and catalyst for, growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the US.
In 1937, during his testimony to Congress that resulted in federal restrictions on cannabis, Anslinger said, “I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That’s why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons, most of who are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions.”
But who really coined the term “marijuana”? The short answer is: we don’t know. The etymology takes a global journey, from China to Mexico and beyond. Weston T. La Barre believed the term “marihuana” may “plausibly be derived from a Chinese word for hemp, brought by Chinese laborers in Western Mexico.” Indeed, “marihuana” is the spelling used in Spanish today.
William Emboden, author of ‘Narcotic Plants’, believed that the word had Portuguese roots. In 2005, Alan Piper asserted that Emboden was mistaken, and the root word “maraguanango” actually came from Brazil. Piper’s conclusion in his paper ‘The Mysterious Origins of the word ‘Marijuana’ was that the word was influenced by one of three sources: a combining of Spanish names “maria-juana”, a pre-Columbian ‘mejorana’, or the Chinese term for hemp seed flower.
This brings us back to the question, where does the word ‘marijuana’ come from and why do we still use it today? Undoubtedly, the use of the word in the United States was co-opted to fuel racist policies and sow fear about immigration. The etymology of the term is widely disputed and likely has no easy, clear answer. Just as we continue to learn more about how the plant affects our bodies, so too will we learn about the history of the plant to better the future.