Most Americans younger than 70 grew up hearing the word marijuana. From the free love of the hippie generation to the frantic backlash of “Just Say No” and D.A.R.E., it’s picked up a connotation that is at once familiar and mysterious. What many don’t know, however, is that “marijuana” has a racially and politically charged legacy — one that we should we should try and dismantle, or at least better understand.
Etymologists agree that our common term “marijuana” comes from the Mexican Spanish marihuana, but there’s no true consensus on the word’s deeper origins. Folk etymology posits that “marijuana” is a compound of the Spanish female names Maria and Juana, although this is contradicted by the fact that spellings using “j” instead of “h” first appeared in English rather than Spanish. Some linguists instead point to a similarity between “marijuana” and mallihuan, or “prisoner” in the Aztec language Nahuatl. Yet another theory suggests that “oregano chino” (Chinese oregano), a Mexican slang term for cannabis, may have been interchangeable with “majorana chino” (Chinese marjoram), eventually evolving into marihuana.
Foreign influences also serve as contenders: the consonant combination “m-r-j” connotes hemp in ancient Arabic and may have been imported by the Moors to Spain and then by conquistadors to Mexico. One of the most roundabout theories traces “marijuana” to a variation on the Bantu word mariamba, which in turn may stretch all the way back to the Sanskrit bhanga, for hemp. Ultimately, the use of pictograms in Ancient Mexican documents, rather than pronounceable written words, renders any theories as mostly speculative.
Cannabis may have existed in South and Central America even before European colonization. Toxicologists have found traces of THC in pre-Columbian Peruvian mummies. Later documents show that conquistadors brought hemp plants to Mexico for use in nautical rope and sails. The Spanish monarchy urged colonists in Mexico to cultivate the crop throughout the 18th century, hoping to make the country a source of international export for valuable hemp fiber. Due to unskilled farming and limited access to hemp seeds, these efforts were largely unsuccessful.
Nevertheless, psychoactive cannabis eventually thrived in Mexico
whether transmuted from early commercial hemp varieties or brought over by slaves from Africa. By the late 19th century, cannabis was sold throughout Mexico in indigenously-operated herbolarias, and consumption was common enough that a surge of sensational stories in national Mexican newspapers condemned its use among prisoners and soldiers.
In 1910, a national revolution against Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz triggered a wave of immigration from Mexico into the Southwestern United States. The newcomers brought cannabis with them and established storefronts, similar to the former herbolarias, in Texas, New Mexico, and by 1920, as far north as Kansas.
The War on Drugs
Unfortunately, the innocuous sale and use of cannabis was catching on in the U.S. during an era of political paranoia and exploitation.
Around this same time, the U.S. government had begun to regulate the growing presence of other psychoactive drugs, using a particularly racist spin.
Although ostensibly intended to stamp out the public menace of open cocaine and opium use with oversight and taxation, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 and the Jones-Miller Act of 1922 were two laws steeped in incredibly racist rhetoric. Testifying at a Congressional hearing on the Harrison Act, a doctor representing the State Pharmacy Board of Pennsylvania stated: “Most of the attacks upon the white women of the South are the direct result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain.” Contemporary media accounts of minority drug use were similarly racist, like this 1914 New York Times editorial decrying “negro cocaine fiends” or this local newspaper ad and this MGM cartoon, both depicting Chinese immigrants as opium addicts.
Into this hate mongering drug enforcement milieu stepped Harry J. Anslinger, a former investigator who in 1930 was appointed head of the newly-formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger aimed the FBN’s crosshairs at cannabis, waging a hugely alarmist media campaign that depicted the drug as addictive, insanity-inducing, and fatal. Anslinger was also sure to underscore cannabis’ use among immigrants, maintaining a “gore file” of tabloid and major national press clippings that linked violent crime to Mexicans under the influence of cannabis. In a statement before the Ways and Means Committee, Anslinger notably used the term “marijuana,” and pointed out its Mexican origin, inaccurately translating it into English as “good feeling.” In an article for Reader’s Digest, dramatically titled “Assassin of Youth,” he again cited cannabis’ Mexican origin.
As much as Anslinger employed racial blame for the supposed evils of cannabis, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst — whose life story served as the model for Citizen Kane — used racial scapegoating on an even greater scale, demonizing Mexican marijuana smokers and publishing headlines like
“Deadly Marihuana Dope Plant […] Means Enslavement of California Children.”
A 1928 column in his New York Herald Tribune went so far as to praise European fascism’s simultaneous anti-drug campaign, using the headline “Mussolini Leads Way in Crushing Dope Evil.” Notably, Hearst’s xenophobia extended far beyond the cannabis propaganda onslaught: as early as 1917, he financed production of the serialized thriller Patria, which depicted Mexicans plotting with Japanese agents to overthrow the U.S. government. In the 30s, Hearst’s publications even ran columns by several Nazi leaders.
[A white millionaire media baron slandering Mexicans and other people of color as criminals, all for his own personal gain. Sound familiar? Surprise! — on a few different occasions, Donald Trump has named Citizen Kane as his favorite movie.]
The Beginning of the End
Eventually, Anslinger and Hearst got their way —
the Marihuana Tax of 1937 was passed by Congress, outlawing cannabis in the U.S. and enshrining “marijuana” as an exotic byword for moral panic.
The racist underpinnings of cannabis prohibition (and the mandatory sentencing laws that followed it) continue to haunt us today. Despite roughly equal rates of cannabis use, blacks are arrested for possession far more often than whites.
The great leveler of federal legalization still seems pretty far off. In the meantime, there’s value in understanding that “marijuana,” although commonly used today, was a word popularized and preserved by hysterical racists — in 100 years, we might be saying the same thing about phrases like “law and order.”
Campos, Isaac. Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs. University of North Carolina Press, February 2014.
Piper, Alan. “The Mysterious Origins of the Word ‘Marihuana’” Sino-Platonic Papers, 153, July 2005.