laws on cannabis

Cannabis VS Marijuana: What’s the Difference?

What’s in a name? Apparently covert racialised agendas in this case. While many people may openly refer to cannabis as ‘Marijuana’, ‘weed’, ‘pot’ or many of its other numerous nicknames, not all references to cannabis come without potentially offensive subtexts.

In recent years, as advocates, dispensaries, medical professionals and users have sought to disassociate cannabis from the negative stigma around its recreational use and racially demonising history, ‘cannabis’ has become the term of choice.

At The Academy, we also choose to use the term ‘cannabis’ over ‘marijuana’ in an attempt to go against the historically racist connotations linked to the word, as well as to distinctly refer to the medical variety of the plant over its recreational counterparts.

But why does the word ‘marijuana’ have such a complicated history? And why are there so many different terms to describe the same thing? In this article, we delve deeper into this social, political and etymological issue.

Where did ‘Marijuana’ come from?

While the first etymological root of the word has been lost in time, with people theorising that the word ‘marijuana’ could’ve had Chinese, Spanish or even Bantu origins, we do know that the word came into popular use in America with a distinct focus upon the Mexican-Spanish sound of the word.

This is where marijuana’s politically and racially fraught associations begin, as the man behind the popular use of the word is believed to have made it common jargon to capitalise upon linking marijuana with anti-Mexican sentiment in the 30s. This man was Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Narcotics Bureau, who essentially secured himself a more permanent place working in this role by creating a social issue out of cannabis.

Critically, when building his case against cannabis, Anslinger made sure to create an association between the perceived evils of cannabis and Mexican and black people. This problematic and racist linking by Anslinger was unsurprising, as the commissioner was known as an extreme racist even in the generally xenophobic period of the 20s and 30s, with his own senators called for his resignation following his repeated use of racial expletives in his official memos serving as proof of his prejudiced views.

The use of this word alongside inflammatory accusations and reporting on the dangers of marijauana by William Randolph Hearst in his empire of newspapers helped to secure and emphasise the fabricated relationship between the drug and stereotypes of Mexican and Black people. This negative stigma, although hopefully lessened, still persists through the use of the word today, hence many people choose to not use the word at all so they don’t feed into or legitimise this harmful history. For instance, Harborside Health Center, a leading Californian dispensary, sums up many people’s belief that: ‘The word “marijuana” or “marihuana” is an emotional, pejorative term that has played a key role in creating the negative stigma that still tragically clings to this holistic, herbal medicine. Most cannabis users recognize the “marijuana” as offensive, once they learn its history.’

However, despite this history, many still see the word simply as a shorthand for conveying that the cannabis being mentioned is psychoactive. Indeed, as described by the National Geographic in their cannabis issue, when referencing recreational cannabis use (likely with psychoactive strains) in laws such as California Proposition 64, the term marijauana is typically used over cannabis, with this case in particular ‘frequently using the term “marijuana”, including using it in the full title of the act, while rarely mentioning “cannabis”’.

Additionally, some prefer to use the term ‘marijuana’ to describe ‘a high THC variety of [the] cannabis plant’, with Self magazine defining marijuana as: ‘Specifically the cannabis sativa species; [which] typically has high amounts of THC and moderate amounts of CBD, depending on the strain.’.

What about ‘Cannabis’ then?

The term ‘cannabis’, by contrast, refers more distinctly to the genus or family of plants that includes cannabis indica, cannabis sativa and cannabis ruderalis. With this more scientific connotation to the name, it’s no surprise that this is the term that the medical and corporate cannabis sectors are adopting, as it legitimises the use of the plant by consumers by avoiding the racially problematic or stoner subtexts linked to the word: ‘marijuana’.

Also, some use the term ‘cannabis’ as an umbrella term for both hemp and cannabis products. This botanical approach devoid of racialised stigma helps to distance cannabis from its illegal and recreational use.

For more in depth information on medical cannabis, UK policy and the conditions medical cannabis can treat, we recommend accessing our in depth modules available on our website. Here, you can find up to date information on cannabis based medicinal products and how best to prescribe them. You can also explore our news section and evidence base for the latest information on this ever-changing area of research.

We urge anyone considering the use of medical cannabis products to consult with a trained medical professional prior to beginning use.

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