Which do you say cannabis or marijuana?

Is the Correct Term ‘Cannabis’ or ‘Marijuana’?

Cannabis and marijuana: You see the two terms used interchangeably all the time.

But which is correct? Is one more acceptable than the other? Are there historical precedents? It’s been called a lot of things — weed, pot, grass, ganja, reefer, Mary Jane — but cannabis and marijuana remain the most-used and most-searched terms.

We don’t know exactly when or where humans began interacting with cannabis, but mankind has been using the plant for a long time for many things. It is mentioned as medicine in a few Egyptian medical texts, and some historians suggest that a symbol often seen above depictions of Seshat, the goddess of wisdom, knowledge and writing, is a cannabis leaf. The word itself seems to be of Scythian or Thracian origin.

There is evidence that the Chinese used cannabis as medicine. Emperor Shen Nung was also a farmer. It is said that he tried every herb, including cannabis, to ascertain the medicinal properties, and then wrote up his experiences in Pen-Ts’ao, the earliest known Chinese pharmacopeia. In 2019, researchers found evidence of cannabis burned in mortuary rituals dating to 500 B.C., in China’s Pamir Mountains.

Cannabis Was an Artifact: Who Knew?

In 2008, researchers in China’s Gobi Desert discovered cannabis plants among the burial artifacts of a 35-year-old, blue-eyed, caucasian shaman. Radiocarbon dating indicates the burial occurred about 2,500 years ago. Cannabis had been found in other burial sites in China — but this was the first to include full plants. 

Some Semitic historians believe the Hebrew term kaneh bosm in the Bible refers to cannabis, and scientists recently found traces of cannabis residue on an altar in a 2,700-year-old temple in the Negev desert south of Jerusalem.

Don’t miss our 50 at 50 series: one current or former prisoner published a day until New Year’s Day 2022.

The earliest known English usage of the word “cannabis” was in 1548, according to The Oxford English Dictionary. The botanical term was proposed in 1722, with its “elevating” properties first mentioned in 1848. 

For a short period around the turn of the 20th century, cannabis was prominently listed as an ingredient in pharmaceutical medicines made by American companies.

So from an etymological, historical and botanical perspective, cannabis would probably be the preferred term. 

So Where’d We Get ‘Marijuana’? 

The term “marijuana” in its present usage comes from Mexican Spanish, originally marihuana. Its origins have been traced to the word mallihuan, which means “prisoner,” and to the Chinese ma ren hua, or “hemp seed flower.”

But the term came into heavy usage in the United States in the early 20th century, when the plant was brought into the country by immigrants during the Mexican War, and Harry Anslinger, the anti-cannabis zealot who led American drug policy from the 1930s into the ’60s, codified the word in the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act.

Many current laws, including the Controlled Substances Act, still use the term marijuana (and even marihuana). Anslinger wanted to associate marijuana with brown people and immigration, and the term stuck.

Dr. William Woodward of the American Medical Association explained the difference between the two words during hearings before the passage of the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act. 

“I use the word ‘cannabis’ in preference to the word ‘marijuana,’ because cannabis is the correct term for describing the plant and its products,” Woodward testified. “The term ‘marijuana’ is a mongrel word that has crept into this country over the Mexican border and has no general meaning. It is not recognized in medicine, and hardly recognized even in the Treasury Department.”

Not everyone agrees. Violet Cavendish, communications coordinator for the Marijuana Policy Project, has noted that prohibition has historically targeted people of color and minorities and disproportionately affected them. She added, “I think it’s important to acknowledge this and not completely erase the term marijuana, because then doing so erases the history behind it and it’s easier to move on without understanding that policies have been using this word to target minorities.”

The government and many others seem to insist on “marijuana,” while science and researchers prefer “cannabis.” If you put “marijuana” into a search engine, you get a lot more hits than you do for “cannabis.” So The News Station remains somewhere in the middle. You will see both words used in the publication.

Many of us — though not all — at The News Station enjoy that glorious plant in all its forms. We don’t really care what you call it, as long as you pass it.

More Articles

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!