Last updated: April 28, 2021
What’s in a name? In the case of our favorite THC-rich plant, it turns out that the answer to that question is “a lot”.
Perhaps owing to its status as a strictly regulated substance, the genus of flowering plants known botanically as cannabis has gathered a wide variety of names. Weed, dope, grass, pot, Mary Jane, reefer, ganja – whatever you call it, there is a shared understanding that we are all referring to the same mind-altering plant.
However, when it comes to the names that institutions – the government, scientists and pharmacists, and manufacturers — use for plants in the cannabacae family, the language chosen can take on a deeper significance than you might expect. In some ways, the history of cannabis’ naming reads like a public policy power struggle, with our beloved green caught right in the middle.
Today, we’re going to explore the ways in which naming has been used to classify, condone, or condemn this truly amazing plant – and why you may want to change what you’ve been calling it.
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As the official botanical name of the plant, cannabis is the most widely accepted and respected term for cannabis sativa and cannabis indica. While its geographical origin is debated, most signs point towards Central Asia as its native homeland. After making its way across the pond to North America, it quickly became a favorite cultivated plant of indigenous peoples because of its myriad uses.
Cannabis has been cultivated for thousands of years because if its tremendous versatility and medical potency, with some sources citing a nearly 3,000-year history of medical use (as outlined in Jack Herer’s seminal book on the topic of cannabis, The Emperor Wears No Clothes). From asthma, to rheumatism, to epilepsy and migraines and depression, cannabis was the prescription of choice for a majority of human ailments.
In short, “cannabis” is the official, scientific term that all other monikers for the plant are pointing towards. It can be used to encompass the incredibly wide variety of uses for the plant: As a medicinal substance, recreational drug, vegetable (from the leaves), oil (from the seeds), or fiber used in the manufacture of goods. In this last case, it is more commonly referred to as hemp – our next topic to cover.
Cannabis hemp, shortened to simply “hemp”, now most commonly refers to the specific strain of low-THC plant produced for industrial use of its products such as fibers, pulp, and oils. As an extremely fast-growing plant, hemp was the agricultural product of choice in the Americas for over a hundred years following settlement by the pilgrims. (see “Hemp: American History Revisited”, by Robert Deitch).
Proponents of the use of hemp as a name for especially low-THC plants may see the term as a way to reclaim use of the plant outside of its psychoactive and recreational properties, returning it to its place of prominence as a source of textiles, paper, clothing, biofuel, and food. Therefore, you’ll most commonly hear hemp used to separate the utility of cannabis into two camps: The high-THC, recreational side, and the negligibly psychoactive, industrial side.
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So, why the push to differentiate between cannabis used as a drug (either medically or recreationally), and cannabis hemp intended as a multi-use industrial product? Much of this story starts in the United States circa 1930, with one man: Harry Anslinger.
The 1930s saw the creation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the United States, developed with the express intention of regulating recreational drugs and psychoactive substances. Though the focus was initially on opium and cocaine, Anslinger was largely responsible for the push to criminalize cannabis as well. This effort, coordinated with companies that stood to make a profit from eliminating industrial hemp as a competitor, would be the start of the widespread use of the term “marijuana” in the United States.
Though at first seemingly inconsequential, Anslinger’s specific use of the term marijuana in his introduction of a bill to outlaw cannabis possession and consumption can now be seen to have had much darker motivations. Playing on post-depression America’s racial fears, rebranding cannabis with a Mexican word was used to bring to mind all of the xenophobia, job insecurity, and racism that could encourage people to support its eventual ban.
While Herer’s book The Emperor Wears No Clothes goes into much greater detail on the entire series of events that led up to the eventual fracturing of “cannabis” into multiple racially-charged terms, it’s clear even from this brief coverage how to appropriately refer to cannabis:
Owing to its incredibly long history of cultivation, cannabis has a storied past that is not always wholesome and bright. For anyone who appreciates the plant for its medicinal, recreational, or industrial uses, we would encourage you to continue reading and deepening your understanding. That way, we can ensure that cannabis has just as bright of a future as its illustrious past.
Featured Image Credit: herbalhemp, Pixabay
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