The Astonishing Facts Behind Cannabis's Many Names

Cannabis is an extraordinarily global plant. It has variety of identities worldwide. It's not surprising this incredibly multi-faceted plant should be known by many names. The geopolitical, global, and historical weight packed into its name is intriguing. "Ganja" comes from Sanskrit; it appears as "hashish" in The Count of Monte Cristo; it's "bhang" in The Thousand and One Nights.

Sometimes the different names reflect a wide range of cannabis products. For example, Sinbad's hashish may have actually been half-opium, according to Campos. It's difficult to determine how cannabis manifests in different historical accounts, making it all the more mysterious.

How Cannabis Became Known As Marijuana in America

NPR recently published an article about the different names marijuana has had throughout U.S. history. The article explores how the cannabis plant became referred to as "marijuana," and cites these three main points:

  1. Prior to 1900, news stories referred to the plant as "cannabis." The post-1900 news stories referred to it as "marihuana." In some instances, the pre-1900 and post-1900 news reports actually described two different plants. The Washington Post published a post-1900 article that erroneously combines a poisonous weed called locoweed (clinical name astralagus, not marijuana) with cannabis.

  2. News reports and medical journals in the 19th century usually used the plant's formal name, cannabis. In the early 20th century anti-cannabis activists wanted to promote the drug's "Mexican-ness," so the name "marijuana" became popular. Powerful factions wanted to stop hemp production and cannabis use. They spread tales of violence and mayhem resulting from the use of the Mexican "locoweed" known as "marijuana." The smear campaign worked. As each state enacted cannabis restrictions, ultimately federal prohibition resulted. Cannabis was outlawed.

  3. Eric Schlosser exemplifies marijuana's racially charged history in his 1994 Atlantic article "Reefer Madness" by describing the Mexican political upheaval that started in the Revolution of 1910 and resulted Mexican immigration to states across the American Southwest. The immigrants were greeted with prejudices and fears, including their marijuana smoking for intoxication. Texas law enforcement officials claimed that marijuana caused "superhuman strength," "blood lust," and violent crimes. New Orleans newspapers spread rumors that the drug was used by underworld whites, African-Americans, musicians and prostitutes. In other regions, Mexicans were accused of distributing the "killer weed" to unsuspecting American schoolchildren. The anti-drug campaigners had convinced the public that cannabis was used only by peasants of inferior races and degenerates.

Since then, Americans have become better educated about the medicinal properties of cannabis. Using their right to vote, they've sent a message to state and federal government that they want legal use of the plant. To date, 23 states and DC have legalized medical cannabis. Washington State and Colorado have legalized its recreational use.

The Roots of the Name "Marijuana"

We don't know for certain how the Mexican Spanish word marihuana came into existence. Competing theories identify the word's origins to three continents—providing an interesting lesson about global correlation and history.

The Spanish brought cannabis to Mexico for hemp cultivation. Historic accounts do not tell us if the Spanish used the plant for its intoxicating properties. There is a theory that Chinese who immigrated to western Mexico named the plant. "Marijuana" could be the Spanishized version of its Chinese name ma ren hua.

There's also a theory that the Portuguese brought Angolan slaves to Brazil who called the plant by the Bantu word: ma-kaña.

A more romantic theory is that the name originated in South America from the blending of two Spanish women's names Maria and Juana.

The mystery may never truly be solved, but one fact is certain: in this new millennium, cannabis has regained its reputation as an organic, healing plant and is making its mark in the American medical industry, including its ability to decrease prescription painkiller addiction and overdose.

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