Project Description


These days there seems to be no shortage of words used to describe cannabis. Whether you prefer to call our favorite plant weed, pot, bud, mary jane, or even grass (settle down, Mom), the one word we all know to use when all else fails is “marijuana”. And yet, contrary to popular belief, marijuana is actually not the plant’s proper or scientific name; that honor belongs to cannabis, a word which traces its origin all the way back to ancient Scythia and Thrace, which existed back around 700 BCE.

So if cannabis is the real, correct term, then why do so many people call it marijuana?

While there is no universally agreed-upon theory as to the origins of the word, the most common theory goes something like this. At the turn of the century (the last century, that is), most Americans referred to the plant as cannabis. This was the term preferred by the numerous pharmaceutical companies, like Bristol-Myers Squib and Eli Lilly, which used the plant in medicines and remedies to treat ailments like insomnia, migraines, and rheumatism. Indeed, cannabis-based products could be easily found in just about any pharmacy and general store across the United States starting in the late 1800’s. When Americans weren’t talking about the cannabis in their medicines, those wealthy enough to afford imports were busy enjoying the pleasures of hashish, a habit glamorized by prominent literary figures of the time like Alexandre Dumas. In fact, Dumas was part of a dedicated Club des Hashish in Paris, along with other notable writers like Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, and Honore de Balzac.

Things started to change in 1910, when revolution erupted across our neighbor to the south, Mexico. The Revolution would rage on for a decade, forcing around 890,000 Mexicans to immigrate (legally, it should be said) into the United States. Although some Americans were familiar with the consumption of cannabis in its medicinal form and as hashish, smoking the plant recreationally, which was the popular habit among the Mexican immigrants, was a new phenomenon. As the years went on, immigrants from Mexico and the West Indies brought the habit to ports along the Gulf Coast, especially New Orleans, where it was readily taken up by members of the surging jazz and swing scene.

Louis Armstrong, a cannabis fan and legendary jazz musician. Source:

In the 1930’s, with the Great Depression wreaking havoc across the country, Americans were in need of a scapegoat, and Mexicans with their “locoweed” seemed to fit the bill. Henry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, probably did the most to popularize the term “marihuana” in this country, using it purposefully to make the plant sound foreign and, especially, Mexican.  Anslinger travelled the country making fiery speeches railing against the evils of “marihuana”, and did his damnedest to scare the pants off of everyone in Congress. Some of his choicest lines include, “Marihuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind…Most marihuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marihuana usage.” And of course, who could forget this gem: “Reefer makes the darkies think they’re as good as white men…the primary reason to outlaw marihuana is its effect on the degenerate races.” Sounds like an argument rooted in facts, evidence, and the scientific method, right?

Despite how ludicrous such statements sound today, Anslinger’s racist fearmongering did the trick, and cannabis began to be criminalized across the country. Beginning in California in 1913 and El Paso, Texas, in 1914, states began prohibiting the cultivation and use of marijuana for medical and recreational purposes, culminating in the federal prohibition in 1937.

However, though the above history does seem to indicate that the word marijuana is largely the product of racist buzzkills ranting in the 1930’s, there is still some debate as to whether or not the word is really Mexican at all. It is important to bear in mind that the history of cannabis is truly globe-spanning, with numerous cultures and peoples around the world having used the plant for a variety of purposes throughout the ages. For example, the word “ganja”, which remains a popular term for the plant to this day, originates from Sanskrit, and was used by ancient Hindus of South Asia. The word “bhang”, which is now the name of a popular vaporizer company, traces its roots to the legendary Arabic tale 1,001 Nights. “Hashish” is also a word of Arabic origin.

But surely, you must be thinking to yourself, the word marijuana must have come from Mexico. It certainly sounds Spanish, right? Actually, a few theories exist that claim the word really comes from the Chinese, or even from Africa. One theory holds that early Chinese immigrants to the Western coasts of America and Mexico referred to the plant as ma ren hua, which was then Spanish-ized into “marijuana”. Similarly, some believe the term comes from a colloquial Spanish way of saying Chinese oregano, “mejorana (chino)”. There is even a belief that the word stems from the Bantu term for cannabis used by Angolan slaves brought to the Brazilian sugar plantations by the Portuguese: ma-kana. In fact, nothing serves to confuse the origins of the word marijuana more than the fact that, in most Spanish-speaking countries, nobody calls cannabis “marijuana”. In Mexico, the most popular terms are “mota”, “pasto”, and “gallo”. Argentinians call it “chala”; Ecaudorians prefer to toke “tobareto” or “grifa”; and Venezuelans remain partial to their “hierba”.

So no matter what you call cannabis  – there’s one thing we can all agree on: we love it!