Is the Word "Marijuana" Offensive?

Is the word "marijuana" offensive?

Over the years, plenty of people have pressed this argument — and recent indications suggest that the debate could be heating up again in Colorado and beyond.

A new article from the Summit Daily goes after "Colorado stoner stereotypes," with various business owners in the Aspen area expressing antipathy for terms that are deemed derogatory, including "stoner" and "dope."

But a main focus of folks at LeafAspen dispensary is using the term "cannabis" in place of "marijuana" and encouraging others to do likewise.

Indeed, the shop's Cally Shadowshot suggests that the State of Colorado rename the Marijuana Enforcement Division as the Cannabis Enforcement Division.

Why? Harborside Health Center, a California business, offers the following explanation for why it no longer uses what it describes as "the 'M' word:"
The “marijuana” term started off life as a Mexican folk name for cannabis, but was first popularized in the US by the notorious yellow press publisher, William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was a racist, as well as being committed to the prohibition of marijuana, which threatened his timber investments. He used his control of hundreds of newspapers to orchestrate a vicious propaganda campaign against cannabis, which featured lurid (and false) stories about black and brown men committing outrageous acts of murder and mayhem. That campaign played on then-predominantly racist public opinion to make cannabis illegal at the federal level in 1937. Since then, “marijuana” has come to be associated with the idea that cannabis is a dangerous and addictive intoxicant, not a holistic, herbal medicine for helping people deal with the effects of cancer, AIDS, wasting syndrome and other conditions. This stigma has played a big part in stymying cannabis legalization efforts throughout the U.S.
The folks at Harborside add: "Language is important because it defines our ideas. Words have a power that transcends their formal meaning. When we change words, we can also change the thoughts that underlie them. By changing the words we use to describe cannabis and herbal medicine, we can help our fellow citizens understand the truth about it, and see through the decades of propaganda."

The Harborside explanation spurred a recent Reddit thread on the topic, with several readers disagreeing about whether eliminating "marijuana" from the lexicon is necessary at this point.

Writes one observer: "I happen to believe that the term "marijuana" was reappropriated by the community decades ago. Certainly the racist undertones to the word disappeared a long time ago."

Another maintains: "The word “marijuana” was pulled from the 1930s gutter in which it had resided, and elevated to the status of a cultural icon, a hippie touchstone, in the 1960s."

A discussion of the topic on takes similar twists and turns.

"It seems that whenever the plant is mentioned in the media in a negative way the word marijuana is always used. When the plant is spoken of in a positive or neutral way the word cannabis is used," writes one commentator.

But as another person notes, "It's known as marijuana around the world. Good luck getting cannabis to replace it."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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