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The Term Marijuana and Its Racist Roots

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

The word Marijuana spelled often; marihuana or marijuana originates in Mexican Spanish. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word originates from Nahuatl mallihuan, meaning “prisoner”. This etymology is unlikely however as cannabis was introduced to Central America with the Spanish long after the word was being used by native peoples. This same etymology was popularized by Harry J Anslinger in his campaigns against cannabis.

Harry Anslinger was the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics for 32 years until 1962. Throughout his time in office, he advocated for harsh drug penalties, particularly on cannabis.

“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others.” -Hary Anslinger

As a propagandist for the war on drugs, he focused on demonizing racial and immigrant groups. For the prohibitionists of the 1930s, the exotic-sounding word Marijuana emphasized the drug Cannabis’s foreignness to white American's xenophobia of the time.

Others sources suggest that the word “Marijuana” originated from the Chinese word for Hemp Seed “ma ren hua” possibly originating from the earlier Semitic root mrj “hemp”. This same root is found in the Spanish word mejorana or Marjoram. Cannabis is also often referred to as “Chinese oregano” among people in Mexico.

Additional associations in Central America are made with the personal name of María Juana, a Native California woman who was the last surviving member of her tribe. Also most famously used in the 1910-1920 Mexican Revolutionary War version of “La Cucaracha”.

The cockroach, the cockroach, can't walk anymore because it doesn't have, because it's lacking marijuana to smoke.

In the 1960’s media portrayal of marijuana use encouraged associating it with hippie subculture and revolutionary youth. By 1975 Peter tosh defended cannabis use in his reggae song “legalize it” and has since been associated with stoner comedy.

The term marijuana is still in a lot of ways associated with the idea that cannabis is a dangerous or addictive intoxicant and not a holistic medicine. This stigma continues to affect legalization efforts, affect legal businesses, and unfairly prosecute many.

Statistics say that different races use cannabis at a similar rate. However, minorities are much more likely to face punishment. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, between 2001 and 2010, African Americans were arrested for marijuana possession at almost four times the rate of whites.

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