While there are dozens of slang terms for cannabis, including reefer, pot, dope, weed, grass, ganja, and herb, sometimes even people who have been using our plucky green pal for a while now get confused by the various terms for the plant.
So, let’s set the record straight on nomenclature, because words have power - particularly when they’ve got a socio-political context to them.
Cannabis sativa is the scientific name of a friendly flowering plant from Asia which contains chemical compounds called cannabinoids, essential oils called terpenes, and which produces fiber, seed, oil, valuable medicinals, and a great deal of fun.
Hemp is the legal designation for a form of Cannabis sativa which contains less than .3% of the cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which, when activated by heat, gets most people high. That’s the main distinction between hemp and any other form of cannabis.
One of the most familiar terms for the THC producing plant is marijuana - or marihuana, as it’s been spelled in earlier decades.
The other point to note is that while hemp growers might cultivate both male and female plants depending on what they’re looking for (males for specifically for hemp seed and hemp seed oil and females specifically for the flowers or buds which primarily contain the cannabinoid cannabidiol or CBD), people growing cannabis for the THC content will primarily only grow females. This is because when males flower, they’ll pollinate the females, which will produce a lot of seeds and ruin the buds.
One of the most familiar terms for the THC producing plant is marijuana - or marihuana, as it’s been spelled in earlier decades. The problem with the word marijuana is that Harry J. Anslinger, director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962, hated cannabis and used the word marijuana foster mass hysteria and galvanize a previously unaware American public against the alleged dangers of cannabis.
He connected marihuana - as it was spelled at the time - with invading Mexican “hordes” and the “reefer madness” which was destroying America’s youth. It’s a word which conjures Maria and Juan coming across the border in the middle of the night, black jazz musicians having sex with innocent white women, and other extremely racist stereotypes perpetuated around that time.
Ultimately, the most important thing to acknowledge is that words, like the cannabis plant itself, have power.
Anslinger, by the way, was also responsible for the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which criminalized individual possession and eventually led to much harsher drug sentencing. Given the racist origins of all this legislation, and the outsized, draconian impact the more recent War On Drugs has had on BIPOC folx and their communities, marijuana - no matter how you spell it - is a word we prefer not to use.
Interestingly enough, some people take issue with the word weed, because in the dominant cultural paradigm, weeds are generally considered useless plants which ruin your garden and should be eliminated with all due haste. In truth, much like cannabis, most of those plants are actually medicinal herbs and are most certainly not useless! So for some people, weed does not land well.
For others, the word pot is problematic because, as noted in the San Diego Union-Tribune, pot conjures up “an image of lazy, not-so-bright people who puff their lives away” - not a vision of cannabis enthusiasts with which they care to be identified. Other cannabis-inclined folx feel that any word which doesn’t highlight the medicinal value of the plant should be rejected and cast aside.
Anything which diminishes someone else - even words - diminishes all of us.
Ultimately, the most important thing to acknowledge is that words, like the cannabis plant itself, have power. They have meaning and context and land differently with different people based on their identity and experience.
Respecting those resonances, and choosing your words with care, honors the feelings of those with whom you’re communicating, and is ultimately a sign of not just generosity and compassion - or even allyship - but a deep belief that we are a community and that the fight for justice and equity is everyone’s equal fight.
Anything which diminishes someone else - even words - diminishes all of us. Given the elevating and healing nature of cannabis, we can use our choices in language to elevate and heal as well.