I’ve stopped using the word marijuana. Readers of this column might have noticed that it has never appeared until now. My friends definitely know not to use it around me lest they want a preachy, rapid-fire verbal beat down. Yes, only a skilled killjoy such as myself would do this while everyone else is just trying to have a good time.
Therein lies the problem. While it’s nice to imagine that Prop. 64 ushered in a world in which we’re all just hanging with Dave Chappelle, ripping blunts and getting our wellness on with CBD oil, the truth is far less sanguine.
Many other aspects of the cannabis world have not progressed in the same way the industry would have us believe. Across the state and country, millions—mainly people of color—remain imprisoned on cannabis-related convictions. The recent passage of several California bills designed to help those with non-violent cannabis convictions expunge their records and get released from prison is a step in the right direction. Still, there is a long way to go before the playing field can be considered any kind of level.
It’s a fact that weighs heavy on me, a white woman who gleefully writes about using cannabis in all sorts of situations that, not too long ago, got many people locked up. I never had that problem. I grew up in a very nice suburb of New York City, where my then-boyfriend would score a $20 bag of decent bud he got from a guy in Queens, thus starting my path to the exceptionally accomplished, professional weed smoker I am today.
Smoking pot was fun, mildly rebellious and, most importantly, for me it was safe. I knew I was never, ever going to get arrested for smoking weed; if you had asked me if I was afraid, I would have responded, “I’m a white chick. It’s probably not going to happen.” And I was right. I never did get arrested and now it’s legal where I live. That’s how privilege works.
So, about that word? Marijuana? Its shitty use can be traced back to The Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ first director, Harry J. Anslinger, who went whole hog on the plant in the early 1930s, attaching it to black and Mexican working-class communities. He wanted to turn public opinion against cannabis use by classifying it as foreign and, therefore, dangerous. So, he appropriated the word “marihuana,” a term thought to be used in colonial Mexico by indigenous growers who were forced by colonizers to grow hemp for rope. He’s also the guy responsible for the atrocious Reefer Madness films and propaganda.
“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind,” Anslinger said. “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music—jazz and swing—result from marijuana use.”
In case it isn’t already obvious, that is some fabricated, racist garbage. What’s sad, though, is that Anslinger’s rhetoric and his policies laid the groundwork for all-out criminalization and the eventual War on Drugs, a fruitless endeavor that continues to drag on and ruin lives all over the world.
It’s important to right the wrongs of those who came before us and little gestures can have large impacts. Since words matter and I can’t lay cultural claim to saying marihuana, I’ll stick to saying cannabis and other less harmful terms like weed, herb, grass and other euphemisms for the beloved devil’s lettuce. Unless you want me to harsh your mellow, I would suggest others do the same.