English usage of the term ‘marijuana’ may be traced to Mexican immigrants and African-Americans in the early 20th century. Latino immigrants introduced another name for cannabis, which was the Mexican/Spanish word marihuana. While likely adopted by Mexican Spanish speakers from a pre-Columbian native language, the exact etymology of marihuana is unclear. The spelling ‘marijuana’ was a 20th century American invention, probably influenced by the spelling of the Spanish name Juana. The use of marihuana by immigrant Mexicans and African-Americans, like the minority groups themselves, was viewed with suspicion by white Americans. This concern paralleled the slightly earlier xenophobic association of Asians and opium use in the United States, where many whites regarded the Asian-American communities as undesirable. This fear, coupled with the drug use itself, led to our first laws regulating narcotics in the early 1900s.
In early 20th century laws restricting opioid drugs, both cannabis and alcohol were sometimes inaccurately defined as narcotics, although alcohol eventually shed this association. Cannabis, however, was labeled as a poison and increasingly connected with opioids, even though knowledgeable physicians recognized this association as lacking any pharmacologic or scientific merit. The authoritative Oxford English Dictionary confirms that the term ‘marihuana’ was unknown in common English usage until the 1920s, when anti-drug crusaders identified and opposed the recreational use of cannabis by American jazz musicians and entertainers, many of whom were African-American. Its rise in popularity during that time may be attributed in part to the scarcity of alcohol during Alcohol Prohibition.
Today, the Spanish term ‘marijuana’ is more recognizable and commonly used in the U.S. than ‘cannabis’. Nonetheless, we must recognize that its American usage began as an ethnic slur popularized by anti-narcotic crusaders to vilify cannabis. By calling it ‘marijuana’, a group of politicians created the false impression that cannabis was introduced to the U.S. by Mexican immigrants. Thus, in naming their organization, the founders of DFCR chose to reclaim the proper medical name of the drug and the scientific name of the plant. Cannabis is also the word presently favored in almost all medical and scientific publications.