We've decided to take a weekly look at a word or phrase that's caught our attention, whether for its history, usage, etymology, or just because it has an interesting story. This week, we look into how we came to call cannabis "marijuana," and the role Mexico played in that shift.
Marijuana has been intertwined with race and ethnicity in America since well before the word "marijuana" was coined. The drug, my colleague Gene Demby recently wrote, has a disturbing case of multiple personality disorder: It's a go-to pop culture punch line. It's the foundation of a growing recreational and medicinal industry. Yet according to the ACLU, it's also the reason for more than half of the drug arrests in the U.S. A deeply disproportionate number of marijuana arrests (the vast majority of which are for possession) befall African-Americans, despite similar rates of usage among whites and blacks, the ACLU says.
Throughout the 19th century, news reports and medical journal articles almost always use the plant's formal name, cannabis. Numerous accounts say that "marijuana" came into popular usage in the U.S. in the early 20th century because anti-cannabis factions wanted to underscore the drug's "Mexican-ness." It was meant to play off of anti-immigrant sentiments.
A common version of the story of the criminalization of pot goes like this: Cannabis was outlawed because various powerful interests (some of which have economic motives to suppress hemp production) were able to craft it into a bogeyman in the popular imagination, by spreading tales of homicidal mania touched off by consumption of the dreaded Mexican "locoweed." Fear of brown people combined with fear of nightmare drugs used by brown people to produce a wave of public action against the "marijuana menace." That combo led to restrictions in state after state, ultimately resulting in federal prohibition.
But this version of the story starts to prompt more questions than answers when you take a close look at the history of the drug in the U.S.: What role did race actually play in the perception of the drug? Are historical accounts of pot usage — including references to Mexican "locoweed" — even talking about the same drug we know as marijuana today? How did the plant and its offshoots get so many darn names (reefer, pot, weed, hashish, dope, ganja, bud, and on and on and on) anyway? And while we're on the subject, how did it come to be called "marijuana"?
Let's start with the race question. Eric Schlosser recounts some of the racially charged history of marijuana in his 1994 Atlantic article "Reefer Madness" (some of the source material for the best-selling book):
"The political upheaval in Mexico that culminated in the Revolution of 1910 led to a wave of Mexican immigration to states throughout the American Southwest. The prejudices and fears that greeted these peasant immigrants also extended to their traditional means of intoxication: smoking marijuana. Police officers in Texas claimed that marijuana incited violent crimes, aroused a "lust for blood," and gave its users "superhuman strength." Rumors spread that Mexicans were distributing this "killer weed" to unsuspecting American schoolchildren. Sailors and West Indian immigrants brought the practice of smoking marijuana to port cities along the Gulf of Mexico. In New Orleans newspaper articles associated the drug with African-Americans, jazz musicians, prostitutes, and underworld whites. "The Marijuana Menace," as sketched by anti-drug campaigners, was personified by inferior races and social deviants."
In 1937, U.S. Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger testified before Congress in the hearings that would result in the introduction of federal restrictions on marijuana. According to druglibrary.org, Anslinger's testimony included a letter from Floyd Baskette, the city editor of the Alamosa (Colo.) Daily Courier, which said in part, "I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That's why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons, most of who [sic! such an enthusiastic sic!] are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions."
Folks weren't just worrying about Mexicans and jazz musicians, either. "Within the last year we in California have been getting a large influx of Hindoos and they have in turn started quite a demand for cannabis indica," wrote Henry J. Finger, a powerful member of California's State Board of Pharmacy, in a 1911 letter (page 18). "They are a very undesirable lot and the habit is growing in California very fast; the fear is now that it is not being confined to the Hindoos alone but that they are initiating our whites into this habit."
It seems clear that much anti-cannabis animus had a racial dimension. Here's the thing, though. The "pot was outlawed because MEXICANS" argument is complicated by the fact that Mexico was also cracking down on the drug around the same time, as Isaac Campos documents in his book Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico's War on Drugs. Mexico's prohibition of pot actually came in 1920, a full 17 years before the U.S. federal government pot crackdown started (with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937). And while there may have been a class dimension to the movement against marijuana in Mexico, Campos suggests, people were banning the drug because they were seriously freaked out about what it could do.
The Turn Of The 20th Century
If you've ever watched a stoner movie, this account of marijuana's effects will likely seem very familiar:
"The resin of the cannabis Indica is in general use as an intoxicating agent from the furthermost confines of India to Algiers. If this resin be swallowed, almost invariably the inebriation is of the most cheerful kind, causing the person to sing and dance, to eat food with great relish, and to seek aphrodisiac enjoyment. The intoxication lasts about three hours, when sleep supervenes; it is not followed by nausea or sickness, nor by any symptoms, except slight giddiness, worth recording."
— Source: "The Indian Hemp," The Western Journal of Medicine and Surgery, May 1843.
Add some "Cap'n Crunch," and bam, you've basically just described the plot of Half-Baked.
Most of the pre-1900 press references to cannabis relate either to its medical usage or its role as an industrial textile.* But then, in the early 1900s, you start to see accounts in major newspapers like this Los Angeles Times story from 1905 ("Delirium or death: terrible effects produced by certain plants and weeds grown in Mexico"):
"Not long ago a man who had smoken a marihuana cigarette attacked and killed a policeman and badly wounded three others; six policemen were needed to disarm him and march him to the police station where he had to be put into a straight jacket. Such occurrences are frequent.
"People who smoke marihuana finally lose their mind and never recover it, but their brains dry up and they die, most of times suddenly."
Suddenly, the drug has a whole new identity. Here's a representative New York Times headline from 1925: "Mexican, Crazed by Marihuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife."
This disparity between "cannabis" mentions pre-1900 and "marihuana" references post-1900 is wildly jarring. It's almost as though the papers are describing two different drugs. (In Spanish, the drug's name is spelled "marihuana" or "mariguana"; "marijuana" is an Anglicization.)
But according to Campos' book, these accounts in the American press echoed stories that had been appearing in Mexican newspapers well before. Campos cites story after story — most pre-1900 — containing similar details: a soldier "driven mad by mariguana" and attacking his fellow soldiers (El Monitor Republicano, 1878), a pot-crazed soldier murdering two colleagues and injuring two others (La Voz de México, 1888), a prisoner stabbing two fellow inmates to death after smoking up (El Pais, 1899).
Campos makes a very compelling case that the "pot-induced mania" narrative wasn't imposed on Mexico after the fact by xenophobes in America.
Much of Campos' book is devoted to puzzling through the question of how the effects of marijuana as documented in these press accounts in Mexico and America could differ so dramatically from our contemporary understanding of the drug. Could class prejudice have caused the elites running Mexico's newspapers to hype up accounts of drug-fueled violence among the lower classes? (Consider that all of the accounts listed above involved prisoners or soldiers, who would have been thought of as lower class at the time.)
Campos ultimately concludes that while class attitudes were certainly on display in the Mexican press (just as racist and xenophobic attitudes were on display in the American press), they weren't behind the perception of marijuana as dangerous. In fact, his read of the evidence suggests that it was lower-class Mexicans who were most fearful of the drug's effects.
As mystifying as it might be amid modern perceptions of marijuana as a relatively benign narcotic, Campos argues that a variety of conditions could have caused users in that late 19th-century context to behave very differently from the way we might expect stoners to behave today. He writes:
"When I began this research, I expected the scientifically measurable effects of cannabis to be a straightforward control for understanding the past. My assumption went something like this: If we know the effects that a drug has in the present, then we will know what effects the drug had in the past, producing a perfect control for distinguishing between myth and reality in the historical archive. This, it turns out, was wrong.
"Richard DeGrandpre has called this widespread misunderstanding the "cult of pharmacology" and has identified it as a key component in the genesis and longevity of misguided drug policies in the United States. The cult of pharmacology suggests that there is a direct and consistent relationship between the pharmacology of a substance and the effects that it has on all human beings. But as decades of research and observation have demonstrated, the effects of psychoactive drugs are actually dictated by a complex tangle of pharmacology, psychology and culture — or "drug, set, and setting" — that has yet to be completely deciphered by researchers.
One factor, however, appears difficult to disentangle even in Campos' meticulously detailed account. We have a fairly low-resolution understanding of what "marijuana use" looked like in Mexico and the U.S. at the turn of the century — how much people consumed, how they ingested it, what substances it might have been combined with. Someone smoking a joint packed half with tobacco and half with cannabis indica (the version of the drug that typically produces a sedentary, mellow high) would have had a very different experience than someone who's drinking the Mexican liquor pulque and eating something laced with cannabis sativa (the version of the drug likelier to produce anxiety).
Which brings us back to the problem of names.
The Many Faces Of Marijuana
Remember when I mentioned that the pre-1900 "cannabis" news stories and the post-1900 "marihuana" news stories almost seemed to be describing two different plants? Well, in some cases, they actually were.
One account, published in The Washington Post, draws a distinction between "Mexican marihuano or locoweed" and Indian "hasheesh," aka "cannabis indica." The article actually erroneously conflates a poisonous weed (that really is called locoweed; its clinical name is astralagus, not cannabis) with marijuana. (More about that on page 21 of this paper.)
Cannabis is an extraordinarily global plant, and has a variety of identities all around the world. This is one of the reasons the drug has so many names — "ganja" comes from Sanskrit; it appears as "bhang" in The Thousand and One Nights; it's "hashish" in The Count of Monte Cristo. But these different names reflect a wide range of cannabis products and derivatives. According to Campos, for example, Sinbad's hashish may have actually been half-opium. Such variety in labeling obviously makes it difficult to determine how cannabis manifests in different historical accounts.
In fact, the plant has such a robust global history that we don't even know for sure how the Mexican Spanish word marihuana was coined. Plausible competing theories trace the word's roots to any of three continents. And therein lies an interesting little lesson about history and global interconnectedness.
We know that the Spanish brought cannabis to Mexico to cultivate it for hemp, but it's unlikely the Spanish indulged in any significant fashion in the plant's psychoactive properties. One theory holds that Chinese immigrants to western Mexico lent the plant its name; a theoretical combination of syllables that could plausibly have referred to the plant in Chinese (ma ren hua) might have just become Spanishized into "marijuana." Or perhaps it came from a colloquial Spanish way of saying "Chinese oregano" — mejorana (chino). Or maybe Angolan slaves brought to Brazil by the Portuguese carried with them the Bantu word for cannabis: ma-kaña. Maybe the term simply originated in South America itself, as a portmanteau of the Spanish girl's names Maria and Juana.
The mystery of marijuana's name is appropriate for this incredibly many-faceted plant. It's worth reflecting, when you see coverage of the humble weed, how much global, geopolitical, historical weight is packed into even its name. All that history is still reverberating in the lives of the men and women affected by the drug every day. When you think about it, a degree of multiple personality disorder makes sense for a drug that might as easily have been named by Angolan slaves as by Chinese immigrant laborers.
Correction: September 16, 2021 12:00 am — An earlier version of this story misstated the first name of Harry Anslinger as Henry.
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