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Cannabis vs Marijuana Debate—Richard Rose Comments

Updated: Jan 15

Cannabis industry professionals and activists have for decades taken arguably smug satisfaction in preaching use of the term "cannabis" instead of "marijuana." I should know; I was one of them.

With cavalier nonchalance, I frequently told students and social media followers that marijuana was an outdated term with racist roots that should be avoided for the more technically correct scientific variation cannabis. I'm here to eat my humble pie. I was wrong.

A Reefer Madness-era poster

In the marijuana versus cannabis debate, the devil's lettuce is in the details. Allow me to toss a spoiler: Neither term is appropriate for 100 percent of use case scenarios. In other words, a single term to describe this biochemically nuanced and medicinally, culturally, and legally complex plant, it turns out, simply does not make sense.

Cannabis vs. Marijuana: Binary Battle

Many who recommend cannabis over marijuana do so because of the prominent role of the terms marijuana and "marihuana" in the propaganda campaign of the nineteen teens through 1930s in the U.S. involving conservative leaders Harry Anslinger and William Randolph Hearst. Popularly cited as Reefer Madness, this campaign directly manifested as modern federal-level, marijuana prohibition.

Many who preach "cannabis" over "marijuana" do so because of the prominent role of the terms marijuana and "marihuana" in the Reefer Madness propaganda campaign.

In fact, an urban legend has developed that falsely claims that Anslinger and Hearst coined the term in an effort to popularize racist sentiment against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans as part of their overall prudish rally against reefer. This is simply not true.

Richard Rose, a human who knows more about hemp and cannabis than nearly anyone with whom I have come into contact, recently commented on one of my Facebook posts. In the post, I pro tipped employees new to the cannabis industry by lecturing them to use cannabis instead of marijuana.

1936 film Reefer Madness

Rose, as he tends to do, dropped some science on me with the important fact that the Mexican term "marihuana" significantly predates the Reefer Madness era. In fact, it was included in the Pharmacopoeia Mexicana* in the 1850s. For perspective, the Oxford English Dictionary reports that the first usage of the word cannabis occurred in 1548.

But the etymological waters get murkier. An earlier form of marihuana appeared in the 1846 Mexican Farmacopea spelled as "mariguana." Hemp historian Russ Grim from Michigan has identified several other occurrences of the term mariguana, including in 1885, 1900, 1905, and 1921, among others.

Appearance of term mariguana in an 1875 book

The Mexican term "marihuana" significantly predates the Reefer Madness era. In fact, it was included in the Pharmacopoeia Mexicana* in the 1850s.

*A pharmacopoeia—in addition to being difficult to spell—is "a book describing drugs, chemicals, and medicinal preparations. Especially: one issued by an officially recognized authority and serving as a standard" according to Merriam-Webster.

Marihuana Merely Reappropriated

Thus, the first generation of drug war warriors, Anslinger and Hearst (and their prohibitionist pals Lammot du Pont and Andrew Mellon, among others) merely reappropriated the innocent term marihuana for their anti-weed crusade that began more than a century ago—and materialized as the now-infamous 1937 law passed by the United States Congress called the Marihuana Tax Act that created modern ganja prohibition.

Journalists and communicators often benefit from some type of protocol, or at least a general rule of thumb, when it comes to such controversial debates like that of marijuana versus cannabis (I have even resorted to "cannabis/marijuana/hemp" in some of my training materials). Considerations of which is most appropriate, including attributes such as respectfulness and accuracy (in addition to basic professionalism), are not trivial for any business.

70 Years of Mexican Heritage

I thought long and hard about this issue after Rose educated me about the history of the terms. The math is simple: To hate on the words marihuana and marijuana is to throw shade on 70 years of Mexican heritage and tradition surrounding this herb that occurred before prohibitionists like Anslinger and Hearst hijacked them for their nefarious campaign of white anglo elitism a century ago.

While the system employed by Rose and his nerdy academic hippie friends is overly complex for the average layperson—and even most industry professionals—observation and analysis of his advice is deeply educational.

Recognition Factor

A clear advantage of the term marijuana over the word cannabis is recognition factor; more people understand the word marijuana than cannabis. While there is clear logic to a lead-by-example approach in this case and use of cannabis, there is also the benefit of audience resonance.

It behooves educators, marketers, and advertising professionals to use terms that are most likely to attract and engage audience members. In many cases, marijuana checks this box better than cannabis. This is especially true when communicating with conservatives and evangelicals in North America.

That Taxing Taxonomy

The taxonomy, or naming system, of this plant is obviously complex. (According to Merriam-Webster, taxonomy is the "study of the general principles of scientific classification, especially: orderly classification of plants and animals according to their presumed natural relationships.)

As Rose points out below, the problem with the two-name system I've been employing in my training is that it violates logic a bit. Let me explain. I have been calling examples of the plant that feature below 0.3 percent of the psychoactive cannabinoid delta-9 THC "hemp." This part of my habit is basically fine. But plants scoring above this arbitrary international THC limit I have been dubbing "cannabis."

"Use of a term that complies with science means using something other than cannabis. Marijuana has been the choice of many research scientists because it preserves cannabis at the top of the pyramid as the species."

Back to that logic violation: Scientifically, since cannabis is the species and there is only one species, it necessarily means that hemp is a subset of the species cannabis. Thus, saying "cannabis and hemp" is like saying "General Motors and Chevrolet" (with Chevrolet being a part of General Motors), rather than saying "General Motors and Toyota," two fully separate entities. (If you're not into car culture, think "United States and Virginia" versus "United States and France.")

Use of a term that complies with science necessarily means something other than cannabis. Marijuana has been the choice of many research scientists and thought leaders because it preserves cannabis at the top of the pyramid as the species, with hemp and marijuana being the two sub-types.

In the words of Rose, "Most of calls Marijuana Cannabis, but that's confusing because Hemp is also [scientific] genus Cannabis."

Is "Marijuana" Inherently Racist?

Use of the word marijuana ruffles the feathers of many, especially those who claim it is racist. However, it allows scientists and researchers to accurately depict the genetic relationship between different versions of the herb. In the end, most consumers and industry professionals remain confused about the whole topic. Or merely apathetic.

In fact, most North American patients and consumers probably employ "weed" or "pot" more than they say marijuana or cannabis.

Personally, I think I prefer the term "muggles" from the 1920s.

However, I also understand the approach of entrepreneurs such as Dena Putnam from Leafwize Naturals in California, who favor the term cannabis and purposefully avoid the word marijuana based on their belief that Reefer Madness has tainted marijuana with bigotry and racial bias. This policy cannot be labeled an unreasonable approach.

Play Me Muggles

Personally, I think I prefer the term "muggles" from the 1920s. It was underground slang and popular enough at the time that jazz musician and reefer lover Louis Armstrong released a stealthy instrumental song entitled Muggles in 1928 (predating Cab Calloway's famous Minnie the Moocher in 1931 and Reefer Man in 1932).

"Hey honey, don't forget the muggles on your way home from work." I like that.

For more words of wisdom from hemp pioneer Richard Rose, see his exclusive Higher Learning LV Interview from October 2021. And remember to #LearnAndTeachOthers by sharing this highly educational article.

Curt Robbins

Image courtesy Richard Rose


"Did you grow up with the DARE program, thus brainwashed to want everyone to stop using the word Marijuana? Do you prefer the general European word Cannabis to the specific Mexican word Marijuana, a beautiful word long-devoid of racism (until you raised the issue) and in use since the 1850s?

"Well, precise nomenclature is critically important, but depends on context. My academic stoner friends and I use many words to describe mankind's most popular plant:

  • Dope (but just among ourselves).

  • Marijuana when we mean drug Cannabis.

  • Cannabis when we mean the [plant] genus, in general.

  • Hemp for low-THC or fiber varieties, but sometimes also in the [Jack] Herer usage of the word.

  • Weed, again just among ourselves.

  • Narrow Leaf Drug when we mean what many call smokable Sat