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Is the Term 'Marijuana' Racist?

Deena Murphy
Advanced Implementation Specialist (AIS)
Opioid Response Network STR-TA Consortium

Being culturally responsive means paying attention to language and ensuring we use person-centered language around substance use. So, when the ATTC Network Coordinating Office repeatedly heard commentary that the term “marijuana” was racist and we needed to replace it with cannabis, we quickly scanned any available published research to better understand this context and ensure we practiced cultural humility.

If you have not heard this commentary, here it is in a nutshell. Advocates for legalization outline a history where prohibition champions used the term marijuana to demonize cannabis use and criminalize its consumers. The Spanish word “marijhuana” (later anglicized to marijuana) reinforced anti-immigrant sentiment. Prior to the term marijuana being adopted in the Americas around 1890, cannabis and hemp were common terms. Part of this commentary stems from Isaac Campos’s 2012 book Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico's War on Drugs, which outlines the complex origins of marijuana in North American history. Media outlets such as NPR and The Guardian have approached this topic and subsequently, many other contemporary online posts have advocated for losing the term marijuana in favor of the word cannabis.

But is it really that simple? Would changing the term marijuana to cannabis decrease systemic racism and stigma around substance use? The prevailing sentiment seems to be that systemic racism—which includes arrests for marijuana use disproportionately impacting minorities--will not change by losing the term marijuana in favor of cannabis. In fact, Campos argued that changing this term ignores the important influence Mexican Americans have had on US culture. There is no doubt that we all want to see an end to stigma and systemic racism, but Mikos and Kam’s 2019 article “Has the “M” word been framed? Marijuana, cannabis, and public opinion” highlights their survey of 1600 adults, which found zero evidence to suggest that the public distinguishes between the terms “marijuana” and “cannabis.” As John Hudak of the Brookings Institute points out, the history of marijuana policy is an example of institutional racism enforced in specific communities. But there is nothing to suggest this history and the ongoing disproportionate impact on communities of color can be reversed by simply changing marijuana to cannabis.

Several years ago, the ATTC Network Coordinating Office produced a package of user-friendly videos, infographics and other materials called Marijuana Lit: Fact-Based Information To Assist You In providing SUD Services. This package was aimed at dispelling myths around marijuana, but now we are questioning if these products should be redone? Based on the available evidence and our commitment to practicing cultural humility, should ATTCs stop using the term “marijuana” and switch to “cannabis”?

We invite informed commentary on this topic and encourage you to leave a comment or engage in the conversation on Twitter by tagging @ATTCnetwork in your  tweets.

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The opinions expressed herein are the views of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), SAMHSA, CSAT or the ATTC Network. No official support or endorsement of DHHS, SAMHSA, or CSAT for the opinions of authors presented in this e-publication is intended or should be inferred.