Razz-a-ma-tazz: Call It Cannabis

by Art Goodtimes

IMG_5178 I threw a hissy fit in Norwood last week. At our regular meeting of the San Miguel County Board of Commissioners.

It’s something that’s bugged me for years.

My poor colleagues and staff had to put up with my ranting on and on over contested word choice in a county document that I, as chair this year, was going to have to sign my name to. Ridiculous? You decide…

For years I’ve researched extensively on line and off, searching for a definitive etymology for the American slang term, marijuana. Referring, of course, to the dried buds of select hemp varieties cultivated for their mind-altering potency.

Almost every source I’ve found refers to the origins of this Spanish word as “unknown” or “uncertain.”  But even Wikipedia acknowledges that the word “marihuana” or “marijuana” gained currency in the ‘30s as part of concerted effort to get the plant outlawed. Perhaps the most inflammatory explanation of its etymology comes in a comment on the site Answer Bag. Scroll down to the second answer from DdC222 on June 21, 2008. He posits racist origin for the term’s widespread use in the U.S.

Clearly, if we were being scientific, we’d be using the scientific terms for the two (possibly three) species of the Genus, Cannabis – sativa and indica (and maybe ruderalis). But in spite of all our claims to science-based decision-making and “best possible science” when making laws, legislators’ word choice seems to belie their rhetoric. The common name “marijuana” is currently enshrined in both federal and state statutes.

So, how did the Spanish personal names for Mary and Jane become of the U.S. word of choice for the Cannabis plant, particularly from so many common slang terms – reefer, pot, dope, weed, bud, grass, herb, ganja?

More than one commentator has linked the name to the yellow journalism of Hearst newspapers who were crusading to get hemp outlawed in the ‘30s. By popularizing the Hispanic term for the plant, Hearst newspapers subtlely appealed to its readers racist leanings – the implication being that Cannabis spp. were used primarily by Mexicans and other low lifes. Brian Andradé in definition #33 in the Urban Dictionary  explains, “The use of the word became popular in the U.S.A. during the late 1930s when people in the petroleum, cotton, timber, alcohol, and tobacco industries, along with Hary Anslinger who hated jazz and Mexicans, used the word in prohibitionistic propaganda to use people's xenophobic/racist views to create an unconstitutional tax on the substance … I don't use the word "marijuana" when speaking English because of how it has a xenophobic/racist connotation.”

Together with outrageous propaganda films like Reefer Madness (1936), the racist PR job worked and by 1937, Cannabis spp. were listed as illegal drugs in the U.S. (while tobacco, a much more harmful drug/plant, continued to make millions for the powerful cigarette industry.

Perhaps the one justification for the term “marijuana” might be the reality that much of the source for the American market for the last century or so has come North from or through Mexico.

But plants have scientific names that have been rigorously established and are internationally recognized as neutral terms. Why would otherwise “intelligent” legislators enshrine a foreign loan word with racist overtones into the Colorado Constitution and federal law, instead of the much maligned plant’s scientific name?

Thus my hissy fit.

After staff had convinced the county board that a moratorium was needed for Cannabis dispensaries (as the state was in the process of drafting new rules and the county wanted to update its regs to provide for the health and safety of everyone involved), I proceeded to insist rather vigorously that the term “marijuana” be struck from the moratorium resolution and “Cannabis spp.” be inserted.

Well prepared and ever vigilant, our lawyer pointed out that “marijuana” was the legal term in Colorado statutes and in the state Constitution. I acknowledged that such was the case (reflecting rather poorly, I felt, on the level of science really involved in political decisions in Colorado). But I insisted that in our county, given the choice, I would not approve a moratorium that included a word I considered a racial slur.

Being of both Italian and Hispanic ancestry, my voice rose in volume and pitch. I was adamant. I was elected four times to represent my citizens, and I was not about to sign my name to a resolution that didn’t employ good science, and certainly not to one that codified racial slang into county law.

Used to my occasional obstinacies over obscure points, my esteemed colleagues finally conceded to my unyielding insistence, demonstrating remarkably good humor in the face of my strong reactions. And luckily, our board is good about allowing each of us to get passionate on pet issues during our sessions without holding grudges before or after.

So, I got over my hissy fit. The staff got its moratorium. And at least in one county in Colorado, Cannabis is the legal name of a plant most marvelous, not the objective correlative of a slang word for a Mexican Jane Doe.

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