When I hear the word “weed,” I recall searching through my cluttered college dorm room for a Ziplock baggie large enough to hold enough flower for a spliff. That word conjures up images of Pink Floyd posters strung with multicolored tacks, being giddy over a new South Park episode, and three-hour fits of laughter as I met the first friends with whom I formed smoking rituals.
‘Cannabis,’ on the other hand, has a scientific ring to it. It’s a new word in our lexicon; I hadn’t heard of it until I wanted to get into weed and looked up the plant species on Wikipedia. ‘Cannabis’ has a more serious ring to it than ‘pot,’ and it doesn’t sound like something you’d gulp while upside down at a tailgate. It appears to be something that requires some responsibility and even respect; ‘cannabis’ does not appear to be a habit that one should grow out of as an adult.
Do these two words have different meanings? No. Both phrases refer to a cannabis plant that is high in complex cannabinoids such as THC, CBD, and CBN. However, referring to it as ‘pot,’ ‘weed,’ or ‘cannabis,’ conjures up distinct associations and has varied effects on how people see it. I use the term “cannabis” because I believe it legitimizes calling this substance by its true name: a plant.
Thinking of marijuana as a plant helps remove the socially associated notions of illegal drugs and a dead-end hobby. You are not a horrible parent if you eat tomatoes daily, and it is not considered a harmful addiction to enjoy the scent and effects of lavender.
When discussing cannabis, one is given a little window of opportunity to illustrate how they refer to the plant and how they think about it. The most effective method to start altering closed minds is to show that all kinds of “normal,” self-aware, functional people of society aren’t afraid to talk about or consume cannabis. If we encourage people to conceive of it as anything other than the substance their parents advised them to avoid, as a different name, we could open a crack large enough for them to begin rethinking long-held stigmas.
Because of the clunky syllables, the word “marijuana” never really entered my lexicon. Considering the word’s possible deliberate popularisation to demonize Mexican immigrants, perhaps it was never a proper name. The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was the first to legitimize the term, at a time when many people believe the US government purposefully coined a foreign-sounding name. With so few jobs to go around in general, anti-immigrant sentiment increased throughout the 1930s during the Great Depression. Some cultural critics claim legislators chose a term like “marijuana” because of its links with the Mexican language, instilling fear and xenophobia in the plant and the Mexican people.
Is it important what we call this plant? In a way. However, as we’ve seen with other derogatory-turned-empowering expressions, words’ meaning and power can shift through time, having their impact on the culture in which they live.