This is part of a Syracuse University student-driven reporting project through the NewsHouse website that is being published in USA TODAY Network. It takes a deep look at marijuana issues in New York as the state’s drug laws remain in flux.
It’s been known as pot, weed, grass, ganja, dope, reefer and mary jane; but no other word is more commonly used to refer to the drug cannabis as “marijuana.”
Of Mexican-Spanish origin, the word “marijuana,” or “marihuana,” was replaced with American lexicon’s “cannabis” in the early 19th century.
Today, it has become a buzzword for politics and law enforcement. The United States’ history of federally policing the widely accepted, yet taboo, word is rooted in xenophobia and misinformation.
From 1910 to 1920, the U.S. saw tens of thousands of Mexicans immigrating to the southwest in the wake of the Mexican Civil War.
The influx of immigration escalated anti-Mexican immigrant sentiment and a campaign of “reefer madness” among white Americans, most commonly by the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics at the time, Harry Anslinger.
Anslinger’s propaganda campaigns created racist narratives, like those who smoke marijuana are of an “inferior race” and are more likely to engage in sexual promiscuity and violence, experts said.
By adopting the Spanish word “marijuana,” rather than the already widely-used “cannabis,” Anslinger and other prohibition activists of the early to mid-19th century were intentionally connecting the use of marijuana by brown and black people to dangerous and fabricated side effects of the drug, experts said.
Flash forward to now: The recreational use of marijuana has been legalized in 11 states, and medical marijuana has been legalized by 33 states.
In June 2019, New York legislators voted to decriminalize marijuana possession, but have yet to legalize it.
One of the major sticking points is how to distribute revenue from marijuana sales, particularly on how to create business opportunities for communities of color disproportionately impacted by marijuana arrests.
“We’re not moving forward unless we get the commitment on how the revenue needs to be spent,” Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, the marijuana bill’s sponsor, said in January.
There’s a lot of money at stake.
According to a 2018 report by Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics, the legal marijuana industry is projected to generate over $23 billion by 2022.
How race impacts marijuana debate
As the number of states legalizing marijuana increases, the debate on marijuana’s racially-charged etymology becomes more and more prevalent.
“Marijuana prohibition has historically targeted people of color and minorities and disproportionately affected them,” said Violet Cavendish, spokesperson for The Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group.
“But 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.’.
Some experts argue that even changing preferred weed-speak to “cannabis” offers up its own problems.
Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus was the first to identify “cannabis sativa” in his 1753 classification. But the scientist also biologically classified the human race in his 1767 publication, Systema Naturae.
“He divided humanity into four racial subgroups and ranked them according to which he thought were better than others,” said Emily Dufton, author of Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America.
“So, to assume that ‘cannabis’ is a preferable term because it doesn’t have racial overtones, I think, denies the fact that there’s this Swedish guy who actually has those exact same feelings.”
The debate over marijuana revenue
Others argue that changing the terminology to “cannabis” isn’t scientifically correct. “Cannabis” or “cannabis sativa L.” refers to the entire plant, and it consists of different strains.
One strain, hemp, is the non-psychoactive variety of the plant.
Hemp is used to make commercial and industrial products like rope, clothing, shoes, food, paper, or natural pain relief. Marijuana refers to the psychoactive strain of cannabis that contains THC. In other words, it’s the strain that people smoke.
The recent push to use “cannabis” instead of “marijuana” is often considered a capitalist ploy by certain companies that are using the legal marijuana industry for profit, experts said.
“We see that in the legal cannabis industry it’s still primarily white men who are gaining the most, financially, from this legal system,” Dufton said.
“So, I have my skepticism about really embracing the term ‘cannabis’ as opposed to anything else, because it feels so much like a marketing effort to me.”
In New York, one of the goals of any legalization efforts is to ensure that money from sales go to minorities in the hardest-hit urban communities that are most affected by small marijuana arrests.
So advocates are demanding large portions of the projected $300 million per year in pot tax collections go to people of color and not to big cannabis companies that have often dominated the industries in states with legalization.
The state Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo couldn’t reach an agreement in April as the COVID-19 pandemic dominated their attention.
Opponents have warned about the impact marijuana would have on society and children.
“The legalization and commercialization of recreational marijuana creates a serious public and child health threat and sends a mixed message to young people that using recreational marijuana is acceptable,” the state Parent Teachers Association said.
“With the serious crisis of youth vaping, and the continuing opioid epidemic, this harmful legislation is counterintuitive.”