Editor’s note: Being the well-meaning pro-cannabis publication that we are, as well as dedicated adherents to the general narrative the associated legalization movement has long employed, we thought it prudent to ask our new staff writer, Joshua Hotchkin to contribute a piece on the origins of the term “marijuana.” Our expectation was a deep dive into the racialized hyperbole used by the authorities of the 20th century to demonize the plant in the mind of Middle America. Instead, we received something much more thoughtful. Though the contents of the submission undermine the commonly held belief of our countercultural market place, we have concluded that the dedication to objective truth make this piece more than worth the read.
Over the past few decades, the debate about the use of the word “marijuana” has been a content goldmine for writers. There are now more articles claiming that you should instead say “cannabis,” because “marijuana” is racist, than there are stars in the Milky Way. Or, at the very least, the numbers are close-ish. *wink, wink* However, there is plenty of reason to question the accuracy of this claim, and to invite those making it to consider that they may be misinformed, if not question their motives outright.
The usual story goes like this: At the onset of prohibition, Harry Anslinger used the term “marijuana” to demonize the plant by using racist connotations. There are numerous issues with this narrative.
First of all, the prohibition of cannabis was underway several years before Anslinger was employed by the federal government as its central proponent. The demonization of sativa and indica were first accomplished by drawing comparisons to opium, a substance which had come to be associated with addiction and criminal behavior for many decades by this point, and reasonably so. What was not reasonable was the comparison between opium and psychoactive cannabis. But it was an era of puritanism and prohibition. The axiom of the age was that substances which altered conscious experiences were bad for individuals—and the nation spared no drug. Even caffeine was subjected to widespread criticism during this time.
The next problem with the claim of semantic racism is that ‘Mexican’ is not a race; it is a nationality. And given how popular works of literature, art, music and film from Mexico became during this period, there is not much reason to believe that anti-Mexican sentiments were rampant. What did occur was a wave of immigrants following the Mexican revolution. The vast majority of them were poor, and ended up in areas already inflicted with widespread poverty and its conditions. This led to a misinformed public opinion that underprivileged Mexican immigrants had brought the conditions of poverty, most notably higher crime rates, with them. There were no such prejudiced sentiments against wealthier Mexican immigrants during this time. The evidence suggests that the issue here was class—not race.
But the most vexing issue with the narrative in discussion—and this is going to be hard to swallow—is that there is nothing in the public record to substantiate this claim. There is no record of Anslinger or anyone else making a direct admission of such a motive. The idea that he used the term marijuana to invoke prejudices was inferred by writers decades after the fact. It may be true, but since there is no hard evidence, it is not factual.
The term cannabis refers to several subspecies. It refers to the non-psychoactive hemp plant as much as it does to the sativa and indica varieties. Until the 1930s and 1940s there were very few terms in use to differentiate the psychoactive versions of cannabis from hemp. It is a possibility that Anslinger simply used the word ‘marijuana’ to clarify which plant he was talking about. I personally doubt that. I do believe that he used that word believing that it might summon fear and outrage, but I cannot back that up with direct evidence.
The evidence often given for his racist motivations are the two following “quotes”:
“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”
The only problem here is that he likely never actually said these things—at least not those things verbatim. In tracking the source of these quotes, I discovered they are supposedly “paraphrased” from an article Anslinger co-wrote for The American magazine titled “Marijuana — Assassin of Youth.” In that article there are no sentences even resembling these alleged quotes. In fact most of the red flag words, like ‘darkies’ ‘Hispanics’ ‘Negroes’ ‘Filipinos’ and ‘Satanic,’ do not even appear in the article at all. There are no references to interracial sex or suggestions of the inferiority of people of color. However, he does take issue with jazz, but mostly because it appears to have overwhelmed his senses, not because it was tied to a race.
“Among those who first spread its use were musicians,” Anslinger wrote. “They brought the habit northward with the surge of ‘hot’ music demanding players of exceptional ability, especially in improvisation. Along the Mexican border and in southern seaport cities, it had long been known that the drug has a strangely exhilarating effect upon the musical sensibilities. The musician who uses it finds that the musical beat seemingly comes to him quite slowly, thus allowing him to interpolate improvised notes with comparative ease. He does not realize that he is tapping the keys with a furious speed impossible for one in a normal state.”
The quotes in question are sometimes alleged to derive from Anslinger’s testimony to Congress, however the same issue arises. He never actually said these things or anything else even closely resembling them.
Now I am going to admit something to you. About a million years ago (or maybe it was 7?) I operated a cannabis-related website and wrote one of those “the term marijuana is racist” articles myself. I have since investigated the matter more deeply and discovered that I was wrong. But in doing so, I was forced to consider my motives for having written that in the first place, and to consider the motives of others. From my observations, I have come across three primary motivations.
Misguided good intentions. These authors are willing to follow any logic they believe highlights racial inequality, even when a lack of information, subtlety and nuance leads them into misguided claims.
Anti-racism fanaticism. There are those who are so invested in seeing every social, political and economic phenomena in terms of racism that they refuse to consider anything which runs contrary to their position.
Opportunism. Rather than hard facts, opportunists rely on our disdain for racial bigotries and inequality. They are cynically and insincerely appealing to the fears and outrage of our zeitgeist to sell their stories. This sort of sensationalism has plagued mass media since its inception. Whether motivated by profit or ambition, racializing a narrative can lead to success, which makes it tempting for unethical writers.
I have to admit, when I wrote that using the word ‘marijuana’ is racist, it was for the third reason. I was trying to launch my brand and get more readers. It may have also been a bit of the first reason, but my desire to maintain authenticity and integrity requires that I admit to my shady behaviors in the past so that I can do better in the present.
Another problematic aspect of the call to end the usage of the word “marijuana” is that it resembles the puritanical prohibitionist ideology and behavior which led to previous century of people being imprisoned for using a relatively harmless plant. The urge to restrict language and behaviors is a dangerous one, no less so when it is propped up by good intentions.
While claims of racism in this case are misguided so far as claims go, even if true, there is something more reasonable we can infer from the language Anslinger and his ilk chose to use to characterize psychoactive cannabis in the public’s view, which is classism. However, it is important to remember that we are inferring what is possibly true here, not being factual, since there is no direct evidence for the motives of those involved. From my readings, Anslinger and his corporate cronies more likely wanted the public to believe that drug use would lead to an increase of the conditions which exist among the poor. But he was also likely banking on the fact that most Americans at the time did not identify as being among the lower classes, even though they were. As John Steinbeck said in America and Americans:
“I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”
Given that Americans identified as not-yet-rich-but-on-the-way, it was easy to demonize the most underprivileged. By creating an association between poverty and psychoactive cannabis, he was gaming classism to create a public sentiment favorable to his agenda. And that agenda always had more to do with corporate interests than the wellbeing of the American people. In fact prohibition has been a destructive policy which has exacerbated poverty and its conditions. By appealing to classist hysteria, the prohibitionists were able to widen the gulf between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”
Whether or not you wish to use the term cannabis, marijuana, ganja, weed, pot, etc. should be based on your own experiences and proclivities, not fervently righteous accusations of racial outrage made by the misguided, fanatics or opportunists. Furthermore I suggest that wherever you see similar rhetorical devices being used, you take some time to consider the class issues from which they are distracting us, and the profits which might be gained from doing so.