Marijuana, Cannabis, Ganja, Weed, Grass, Pot, Reefer, or Maryjane: What’s In a Name?

  • by Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel February 8, 2016

    I am periodically amused when we receive an email or phone call at NORML from an enthusiastic, usually young, supporter, advising us he/she has found the missing link to marijuana legalization: come up with a new name for our favorite herb.

    That’s right. Some who are new to the issue, when they first discover the racist under-pinning’s of both marijuana prohibition, and the word “marijuana” itself, naively think if we could just stop using the word “marijuana,” and instead use “cannabis” or some other synonym, our opposition would suddenly disappear, and we would have a clear path to legalization.

    I wish it were that simple. But it is not the name we use that makes it difficult to legalize marijuana; it is the misinformation left from decades of government anti-marijuana propaganda. We are having to re-educate millions of Americans about marijuana, including especially those in the media and our elected officials.

    At NORML we do not follow some stylebook, and we use all kinds of words to describe marijuana at different times. I’m an old-timer so I generally stick with “marijuana,” and I do not consider it a negative term. It’s the name most Americans use to identify the plant. But others at NORML prefer “cannabis”, and our political alerts, press releases and media interviews also frequently include the use of “pot” or “weed” or other popular slang terms for marijuana.

    As an aside, it is a little strange that one would write NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, to suggest that we stop using the word “marijuana.” We are proud of the acronym NORML, a double entendre, which is also our registered service mark. We wanted to normalize marijuana smoking when we started the organization in 1970, and NORML seemed like the perfect acronym.

    But more importantly, those who feel the term we choose to use in our advocacy is a primary obstacle holding the country back from legalizing marijuana, misunderstand the nature of our opponents.

    Those who oppose marijuana legalization, and support prohibition, either have an exaggerated view of the potential dangers from marijuana smoking; or they have decided to oppose legalization for political reasons (e.g., they still identify marijuana smoking with radical, lefty politics).

    In either case, using another word in place of marijuana will have absolutely no impact. Those who ignore the science, and believe that marijuana is “the devil’s weed,” will not assume a more rational position, regardless of what we call it. And those who consider marijuana smoking to be anti-establishment behavior will continue to think of marijuana smokers as cultural rebels, even if we call ourselves “cannabis users.” The name is inconsequential.

    It’s the level of public support that determines when and where we legalize marijuana. Public attitudes, in a country as large as the US, change slowly, and gradually, over a period of time. Because of the government’s “reefer madness” campaign of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, most older Americans were effectively “brain-washed” (another term from the 50s) into believing that marijuana was dangerous and evil, and would lead to depravity. Thus it is no surprise that when NORML was founded in late 1970, only 12% of the public favored legalizing the drug. It was only by advancing a more rational understanding of marijuana and marijuana smokers over several decades that we eventually began to see higher levels of support for legalization, bringing us to where we are today, with 58% of the country nationwide now favoring an end to prohibition and the establishment of a legally regulated market.

    We are finally winning this long struggle, not because we came up with a new term for marijuana; but because we took the time and made the effort to re-educate Americans about the relative safety of marijuana, as well as the important medical uses of the drug. We have finally won the hearts and minds of a majority of the country, who now understand that marijuana prohibition causes far more problems than the use of the drug itself, regardless of what name one prefers to use for marijuana.

    56 responses to “Marijuana, Cannabis, Ganja, Weed, Grass, Pot, Reefer, or Maryjane: What’s In a Name?”

    1. Don M says:

      It is frustrating and disgusting to me that Mr. Bernie Sanders is currently the only presidential candidate that is being honest about marijuana prohibition. He is the only one that will work towards legalization and ending the draconian practice of locking people up for and and ruining their lives in various ways.

      Mr. Bernie Sanders is the only person, I have decided, that I will even consider voting for unless other candidates get on board with ending the ignorant racist laws against the herb. In that case, I will give them some consideration. Even so, I will not forget that Mr. Sanders is the only person currently that has the forsight and integrity to try to do the right thing on this issue.

      Mrs. Clinton would do the country, and the Democratic Party, a great service if she would get on board with legalization. So far, she has gone no further than suggesting she might move marijuana to schedule 2; which is just stupid!

      • John Thomas says:

        Yes. In Hillary’s case, there are multiple frustrations. When husband Bill left the presidential office, he stated marijuana should be decriminalized in an interview published in Rolling Stone magazine. – I have never heard her disavow her husband’s stance. – Someone should ask her if she agrees with him.

        • Don M says:

          I really wish someone would ask her that. So far, her position shows her ignorance on the matter and a real lack of courage.

          I believe she is firmly in the hands of Big Pharma and the Private Prison Industry. I distrust her completely!

    2. Matthew says:

      Repealing the legal definition of “marihuana” would be a simple and complete way to open full legalization. Federally, it would be like a silver bullet against prohibition. There has never been any law either defining or prohibiting “marijuana” – only “marihuana”. Technically, “marijuana” does not exist – and our referendums legalizing “marijuana” could even be undone, with a court ruling. The outrageous legal definition of “marihuana” is what holds our global drugwar in place.

      • Julian says:

        I don’t mean to curb your enthusiasm but you do realize the Department of Health and Human Services holds US patent #6630507 on “cannabinoids as neuroprotectants,” since 2001, identifying the cannabis plant on a molecular level. Changing names to a definition won’t help if th general public and our Congress doesn’t even read the definition, much less understand it.

        I have suggested on this post making any patent on cannabinoids open source, as I find it morally objectionable to patent the vital sustenence of life, however even that would not deschedule cannabis, weed, hemp, marihuana or marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act without Congressional approval.

        I mean for fucks sake we are talking about a law in a country that doesn’t even distinguish hemp from marijuana, only slightly from the recent hemp amendment to the Farm Bill. Thats like not being able to tell the difference between a chihuahua and a German Shepherd!

        The only good news is the momentum from Senator Sanders is going to reveal who we really need to vote for in November after at least 6 or 7 states legalize. Vermont legalizing legislatively is going to legalize marijuana, no matter how you name “legalization” for that matter…

      • Julian says:

        Marijuana, marihuana, ganga, weed, cannabis, indica, sativa and ruderalis have all been patented by the Department of Health and Human Services US Patent #6630507 for “cannabinoids as neuroprotectants. Granted, to patent basic human sustenence is morally objectionable, and I have long advocated this “patent” of cannabinoids be made open source so as not to provoke unregulated activity under prohibition.

        For fucks sake, our government is the only industrialized one in the world that doesnt even distinguish the difference between hemp and marijuana except only marginally by the recent hemp amendment to the farm bill. That’s like not being able to legally tell the difference between grape juice and wine, or a chihuahua and a German Shepherd. Do you really think Congress will end it all over some spelling?

        The CSAct by any other name would still be prohibition. Congress has to change it, which means we have to Take Action and write them, read NORML’s voter guide and vote.

        • Julian says:

          I apologize for the redundancy; amateur mistake not refreshing the page again so I double posted. But on second thought, to hell with it, I agree with Bobwv, let’s call it Stonerbunnies to highlight the recent pandemic of stoned bunnies the DEA pointed out to us. Thank you DEA; Our hard-earned tax dollars are at work!

    3. Matthew says:

      “It’s the level of public support that determines when and where we legalize marijuana.”

      ~ This is how we’ve been having to do it, yet it is certainly not the only way. Leary v. United States is an example. As can be gleaned from Raich v. Ashcroft – the Supreme Court Justices don’t know about the decisively significant uses of “marihuana”, in our country’s founding and especially in our original legal documents, themselves. Simply establishing these facts, before the highest court, could always lead to prohibition being overturned, also. Congress may not outlaw the US Constitution, yet our Supreme Court Justices haven’t ever yet officially realized that this is what has been done. Cannabis Sativa has been “marihuana”, federally, only since FDR forced it to be, since 1937.

    4. bobwv says:

      I submit we change the name narijuana to Stoner Bunny.

    5. Joel: the other Joel says:

      Call it FREEDOM. Just think about that word, and listen how others would define it.

      • Cat Cassie says:

        I like that name too.

      • Julian says:

        Smacks too much of “freedom fries” remember that? Besides, when’s the last time you rolled up some fat freedom or stuffed some freedom in yer pipe and smoked it? Too many inuendos.

        I mean I dont want my freedom “vaporized” that would be awful. 😉

        Think were just gonna have to destigmatize the word marijuana getting one Congressman stoned in public at a time.

        I got a solution; lets get DC public venues legal and open a marijuana cafe right down K street! By the time lunch break rolls around at the Capitol we’ll be legalized federally and we can name it whatever we want!

        • Joel: the other Joel says:

          Freedom can go up in smoke. People must have to cultivate it with care so that it can grow. Freedom isn’t a substance, but marijuana is the most closest thing to it.

          • Julian says:

            Just givin you a hard time Joel; 🙂 (and the other Joel…)

            Marijuana has an adept capacity to provide freedom to so many in so many ways.

            I believe the broader point Keith is getting at is that in order to break the stigma to ourselves and our Congressman surrounding any of the names for marijuana, its going to happen with good old fashioned education and experience, no matter what we call it whether in slang or legalese.

            So I’m serious as a heart attack; let’s get some Congressman in these marijuana venues up and rolling this year (or vaporizing, however you prefer…) so they can legally experience first hand the cultural value of legalization.

            Everyone please make sure your younger siblings and friends are registered to vote, know where their precinct votes, and show up to election day!

    6. Andy says:

      I agree with NORML that renaming this plant will have little effect on changing the minds of the ones who oppose it. I do however feel it is important to point out that the plant was made illegal by naming it marijuana and that most people were lied to during those initial congress and senate hearings that ultimately made it illegal. It should be clearly noted that the term cannabis was accepted in society as a medication and known for being relatively safe to use, and during those hearings the Ashlingers (the ones promoting it’s prohibition) clearly stated that the cannabis and marijuana were not the same plant. The testimony of a a doctor during that time, attempted to state the truth and was essentially called a lier / uninformed expert who was misinforming when he stated the two were the same. If his testimony was taken for the truth it was, it would have likely never been made illegal, and more likely had led to it being regulated vs. made prohibited. Making this point is in my opinion crucial to reversing these harmful oppressive laws that ultimately don’t prevent people from using. I additionally think that the view of personal choice to use a substance is more important than protecting society from themselves. This should be about who owns their body and the choices one has to decide what goes in their body, with governments only rolls should be where/when drugs should be consumed, age of user ie adult, and regulation of the sale ie quality / identification of chemicals, warning of safety hazards, and potentially sin taxes. It is not the federal governments job to prohibit ones choice in consuming a product in America. Prohibitions are the ideologies of kings, dictatorships, and communism. If you believe in America being a free nation, then you should be against laws that prohibit ones personal choices. Period!

      [Editor’s note: A recent book by UNC professor John Chasteen, “Getting High: Marijuana Through The Ages”, casts light on the myth that the word ‘marijuana’ was conjured up by American prohibitionists in the 1920s/30s to confuse the public and/or propagate the notion of an entirely new drug. Mr. Chasteen reviewed Mexican literature and newspaper accounts from the 1840s where the first word to describe a cannabis concoction was ‘pipiltzintzintlis’, which was ingested. The first references to smoked cannabis by the Mexican Academy of Pharmacy refers to ‘Rosa Maria’. Another term emerged for Rosa Maria that is found in their 1846 pharmacopeia, ‘mariguana’.

      By the 1860-70s, Mexican papers regularly referred to the herbal drug as ‘marihuana’.]

      • Alaise says:

        I don’t think anyone could have put more thought into this topic than this man, Andy. Kudos to you and well stated. Thank you for the minor history you touched base with. And yes TO EACH, THEIR OWN! A GREAT MODO WE SHOULD ALL BE TAUGHT! This is why our generation is so important to come together and lead our future gov’t in this matter. I believe there is a substantial atmospheric necessary growth for this and all natural living organisms with photosynthesis characteristic attributes allowed to be studied consumed on our own accord and judgement should be made through scientific facts and not personal discrimanTory proposals by any human man or woman because of their personally tormented experiences that they believe to be reason enough to be able to CONSTITUTIONALLY disapprove of any said earthly revolutionized creatures-Living and Non-Living Organisms alike. I just conjured this statement of mine up as I wrote it! Hope you enjoyed my partaking in this blog. Ty Keith stroup for your concerns in this vital subject in The United States Of America I know our 4Fathers would be and are very proud of all who stand up and voice their opinion on the Cannibus Marijuana and Hemp growth and study importance. THIS IS WHY IT IS IMPORTANT FOR ALL WHO SHARE THIS SUBJECT AS A COMMON DENOMINATOR

    7. Mark I. says:

      When using derogatory terms to define something, the appearance of objectivity does not exist. It predetermines the perception of the author on stance and status. It tell the reader that the information is slanted towards prohibition and not enlightenment.

    8. dj nitro says:

      I don’t know what impact changing a racist term would have in favor of ending prohibition if any. However the defense of using the term because it will not do anything to end prohibition, is a poor excuse to continue using it. I understand it would be inconvenient to change the name from NORML to NORCL, however there are many folks who don’t get the play on words anyway with the acronym used for the organization. It is dated slang that was coined out of negativity. I prefer the herb, or bud, or its correct nomenclature “Cannabis” than slang that was used against an entire culture in a disparaging manner. Just my humble opinion. Free the weed!

      [Editor’s note: “It is dated slang that was coined out of negativity.”
      Or not…as a recent book by UNC professor John Chasteen, “Getting High: Marijuana Through The Ages”, casts light on the myth that the word ‘marijuana’ was conjured up by American prohibitionists in the 1920s/30s to confuse the public and/or propagate the notion of an entirely new drug. Mr. Chasteen reviewed Mexican literature and newspaper accounts from the 1840s where the first word to describe a cannabis concoction was ‘pipiltzintzintlis’, which was ingested. The first references to smoked cannabis by the Mexican Academy of Pharmacy refers to ‘Rosa Maria’. Another term emerged for Rosa Maria that is found in their 1846 pharmacopeia, ‘mariguana’.

      By the 1860-70s, Mexican papers regularly referred to the herbal drug as ‘marihuana’.]

    9. Anonymous1 says:

      There’s too much capita invested within the private prison complexes that the goonies refuse to consider evidence against propaganda.

      Nobama started to slide down the mountain when he acknowledged the US’ “War on Drugs” was a complete and utter failure. Yet for the past few years, Uncle Sam has still been eating synthetic sugar cubes from the hands of big pharma foaming at the mouth about “Cannabis is schedule 1, not good,must be evil”.

      There is no politician that is willing to put their necks on the line for legalization strictly for the good of the people they represent.

      [Editor’s note: The current governor of Vermont, Peter Shumlin, has advocated for the last three years that Vermont should seriously reform the state’s cannabis laws and wants to sign a legalization bill into law before he leaves office. The Vermont legislature is currently debating a legalization bill, that has passed in a Senate committee…and now moves this week to a House committee.

      The most important state in the union, California, has a governor-in-waiting in the state’s Lieutenant Governor, Gavin Newsom, who publicly supports legalizing cannabis (and headed up a ‘blue ribbon’ commission last year that recommended as much).]

    10. James says:

      Great article, Mr. Stroup. I found more than a few points in your article highly significant:

      “It’s the level of public support that determines when and where we legalize marijuana. Public attitudes, in a country as large as the US, change slowly, and gradually, over a period of time.”

      This is a very important point for millenials and younger generations, not only in regards to marijuana legalization, but social change in general. We are often sold a ficticious image of social change in a sort of romantic way: sweeping revolution and towering leaders. Reality has shown us the opposite: incremental change and a whole lot of people working really hard over a long period of time. When we start to see significant movement on an issue like marijuana, we must credit those who have been working hard for decades to make it happen. We are, in a sense, riding the wave that was set in motion.

      Younger people need to realize this, because it reminds us all to keep fighting for policy based on evidence, not fear. It reminds us that the nature of social change is slow, and our lifespans are just smaller timeframes within a larger timespan of change.

      Thanks Keith Stroup – you’ve been there doing it for a long time.