Is the Word “Marijuana” Racist?

CALIFORNIA: It’s been a long journey from the reefer madness of the 1930s and the War on Drugs of the 1980s to the medical marijuana dispensaries of today. As with any changing social norms, reclaiming words or destroying terms with negative connotations has been essential for rights advocates. As Greg Campbell notes in Pot Inc., which centers on his efforts to grow marijuana in his suburban Colorado basement, the pot lexicon, too, is undergoing a transformation:

A certain faction considers marijuana itself pejorative and racist, based on a longstanding theory that narcotics agents in the 1930s chose that word over the more scientific cannabis when crafting drug laws; the word is of Mexican-Spanish origin and thus, the belief is, sounded more exotic and sinister. For others, cannabis is too pretentious to take seriously […] The act of actually inhaling is also a linguistic minefield. In the modern world of medical marijuana, to talk of “getting stoned” is an immediate giveaway […] Patients medicate, even if the need to do so is no more pressing than that South Park comes on in fifteen minutes.

Given all of the legal and linguistic debate, and the fact that drugs and their subcultures can seem inherently interesting (even sexy?), it’s not surprising that there’s a crop of writers who are eager to report on those who grow it, smoke it, or seek to regulate it. With so much at stake — medically, financially, even recreationally — more books about the marijuana industry are highlighting the importance of changing how we talk about it. Journalist Emily Brady’s is the latest. In Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier, Brady focuses on part of the “Emerald Triangle” region of Northern California, where pot growers are plentiful and federal legalities are overlooked. Humboldt County is widely known as the California capital of marijuana farming, and the local economy, Brady tells us, depends upon it. Following four local characters during the 2010 vote on Proposition 19, which sought to fully legalize marijuana in California, Brady discovers that many of the local farmers voted against it; they wanted to keep cannabis illegal, fearing competition from the pharmaceutical companies.

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