Ashley Thompson inspects plants inside the "Mother Room" at the Ataraxia medical marijuana cultivation center in Albion. Credit: AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File

Since he became an advocate for marijuana legalization more than a decade ago, Mason Tvert, now director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, says he’s been approached countless times by people who tell him he should stop using the word “marijuana” because of its racist origins within the context of America’s war on drugs.

As a reporter who covers the weed beat for the Reader, I can relate. I’ve also been reprimanded by medical marijuana business owners and employees and anti-prohibition advocates who are quick to remind me that “cannabis,” derived from Latin, is the proper term for the drug. Additionally, some of them say, the word “marijuana” is a historically racist term that we should scrub from our vernacular.

They have a point. The history of marijuana and drug prohibition generally has been tied to racially charged ideology and rhetoric whose roots can be traced back to the country’s first drug czar, Harry Anslinger.

“Harry Anslinger is the most influential person no one has ever heard of,” says Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs (2015). In 1930, at the age of 38, Anslinger was appointed head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (formerly the Department of Prohibition, where he’d served as an agent) and, according to Hari, was immediately faced with a big problem: with Prohibition nearing an end, he needed a new rationale for the department’s continued existence. That’s when, Hari says, Anslinger effectively invented the country’s war on drugs.

Anslinger built his campaign around two hatreds: that of black and brown people and that of drug users. Because there simply weren’t enough heroin and cocaine users at the time to justify the size and scope of Anslinger’s department, Hari says that Anslinger set his sights on cannabis despite having previously characterized the drug as benign.

Anslinger, who was flagrantly racist even for the time period, also firmly believed cannabis was used far more often by Mexican immigrants and African-Americans than by white people, Hari says. And in addition to claiming that the drug drove users to insanity and acts of violence, Anslinger scared politicians with stories of mixed-race children born as a result of marijuana-fueled trysts between white women and people of color.

“‘Colored students at the [University of Minnesota] partying with (white) female students and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy,'” Hari quotes Anslinger as saying in his book.

Anslinger continued his campaign to criminalize marijuana despite outcry from medical professionals and scientists who told him the drug was relatively harmless and that banning it was the wrong thing to do. Their objections were ignored, and Anslinger’s bid to outlaw cannabis was ultimately successful.

“One of the reasons he succeeds is because he was a propaganda genius,” Hari says. “He fuses fear of drugs with racial fears in a way that continues today.”

But how does the word “marijuana” factor into Anslinger’s racist agenda?

“Marijuana” is an anglicized form of the Spanish word for cannabis, writes journalist Ben Yagoda in Slate: “The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the ‘currency’ of marijuana ‘increased greatly in the United States in the 1930s in the context of the debate over the use of the drug, the term being preferred as a more exotic alternative to the familiar words hemp and cannabis.‘”

Anslinger drafted the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, the first federal law to ban possession and sale of the drug with the exception of medical and industrial uses. According to Hari, his preference for the term “marihuana” over “cannabis” was a deliberate attempt to portray the substance as a drug used by foreigners—specifically Mexicans.

Thanks in part to Anslinger’s knack for propaganda and media manipulation, “marijuana” has long overshadowed “cannibis” in the American lexicon.

But “cannabis” is making a comeback, the Marijuana Policy Project’s Tvert says, as more states move to legalize the drug for recreational and medical use.

In Hawaii, for example, state lawmakers recently approved a bill that would replace all mentions of “medical marijuana” in state statutes with “medical cannabis.” The bill states that the word “marijuana” “carries prejudicial implications rooted in racial stereotypes” dating back to the early days of pot prohibition.

Tvert says the emerging legal marijuana industry is truly the driving force behind the movement to ditch “marijuana” in favor of “cannabis.”

Lisbeth Vargas, marketing director of communications for Mindful Medical Marijuana Dispensary in Addison, says she uses the word “cannabis” in all marketing material for the company, and often refrains from posting articles on social media that use the word “marijuana.” Vargas says she’s aware of the history of cannabis prohibition and, as a Mexican-American working in an industry dominated by white people, it’s important to her to work to erode all stigmas—including racial stigma—around the drug.

“One of the very first steps to fighting the stigma around it is calling it what it is: cannabis,” she says.

Renzo Mejia, who works as a sales associate for Green Thumb Industries (GTI), a company that operates medical cannabis cultivation centers and dispensaries in Illinois, says he learned about the dark roots of the M-word while working in the industry.

“At the end of the day, no matter how you look at the origins of the word, it is racist, it is classist,” says Mejia, who was born in Peru and raised in Chicago.

If journalists are interested in covering cannabis from an objective perspective, he argues, they need to do a better job of preventing the     perpetuation of stigma rooted in false stereotypes. Calling the plant by its proper name is a step in the right direction, he says.

“The way things are labeled makes a difference in a way that things are perceived—especially with this plant,” Mejia says.

But perception is key to educating the uninformed, Tvert says. And despite the growing popularity of cannabis, words like “marijuana,” “weed,” and “pot” are still the most commonly used (and googled) terms for it.

When people criticize his use of the word “marijuana” or its presence in the name of the nonprofit he works for, Tvert says he explains it’s important to make sure everyone knows he’s talking about marijuana and not some substance called cannabis that they’ve never heard of.

But he also agrees that “cannabis” is the proper term, and that it’s “only a matter of time before it’s pretty universal in terms of its recognition—I don’t think it will ever be universal in regard to usage.”

Sandy Martinez, a 27-year-old Berwyn resident and medical marijuana cardholder, says she’s careful to use the word “cannabis” around her seven-year-old daughter, but often says “marijuana” and “weed” with friends.

“I hope we get to a point where it’s not taboo at all to say either,” she says. “I can say ‘Percocet’ or ‘Valium’ out loud and nobody will say anything or feel uncomfortable, but depending on what word I use to describe the medicine I take, I might get a different response—it’s aggravating.” 

After all, she says, it’s the same drug whether you’re using it to treat a medical condition or smoking a joint to relax. While Martinez, a first-generation Mexican-American, is aware of the word’s racially tinged history, she says condemning the word perpetuates its negative stigma.

Hari says he’s torn about whether journalists and the general public should ditch “marijuana” in favor of “cannabis.” On the one hand, he says, the word has gained such broad currency that it no longer has the same connotations it did in Anslinger’s day.

But, he notes, the blatant racism underpinning Anslinger’s war on drugs has persisted into the present day. As the Reader reported in April, African-Americans accounted for 78 percent of those arrested by Chicago cops for possession of small amounts of pot last year, while Hispanic folks made up 17 percent, and white people accounted for just 4 percent.

Hari also notes that “the most powerful person in United States is once again trying to brand Latinos as the source of drugs,” referring to President Donald Trump’s characterization of Mexican immigrants as drug dealers, rapists, and criminals. Racially charged rhetoric around drug use and stark racial disparities in arrests for drug offenses are not subjects of a bygone era—they’re persistent realities.

At the very least, Hari says, an unflinching examination of the historical and present-day use of the term is a conversation worth having.