Looking at Word Choice in the Marijuana Debate 

A bud by any other name.

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Language and the creative use of words have always fascinated me. That’s why I find the use of language employed in the War on Drugs so amusing.

Among pro-marijuana activists, there are some who always refer to pot as “cannabis.” Cannabis is its scientifically correct name and the name predominantly used for medical preparations before its prohibition. Another popular name was Indian hemp. Referring to the plant as marijuana was part of the public relations campaign to vilify it. Mexicans referred to it as marijuana and the prohibitionists chose to use that name in the effort to tie it negatively to ethnic minorities.

“The word marijuana wasn’t widely known until it was introduced by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics,” says Martin A. Lee, author of Smoke Signals, a social history of marijuana, and director of the CBD Project. “It was known as cannabis. It was a calculated choice to use the term marijuana for a xenophobic campaign typified by Reefer Madness.”

And there is a certain calculus not to use the word, “marijuana,” among some activists because it evokes an engrained negative emotional response. It’s rebranding in the deepest sense of modern marketing.

Cannabis is more neutral. It’s scientific and some people don’t even know it refers to marijuana when they first hear it. Hemp is another word for a strain of marijuana that sounds friendly. Most folks have come across hemp rope or cloth in their lives. Hemp seed is bird food. Hemp oil is used in soaps.

Farmers who otherwise would have nothing to do with marijuana would love to grow hemp, the low-THC member of the marijuana family that doesn’t get people high.
As the pro-marijuana movement builds, wide arrays of words are used to describe what organizations are about. The name National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws is pretty straightforward. Its acronym, NORML, makes another statement. Pronounced “normal,” it makes the point that marijuana users are not abnormal, but a normal functioning part of society.

The Marijuana Policy Project’s name is pretty straightforward regarding what that organization does, but what about Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP)? That sounds interesting. Law enforcement is a good, solid concept. Almost every political campaign touts law and order; so that’s a big social plus. But what’s this “Against Prohibition” about?

Well, prohibition is a discredited concept in the United States. Alcohol prohibition lasted from 1919 until 1933. It gave rise to powerful organized crime syndicates. Conceptually tying together today’s interdictions against marijuana and other drugs (LEAP espouses relieving strictures against all drugs) with the failure that was alcohol prohibition highlights the commonalities between the two crusades.

And then there’s Americans for Safe Access (ASA). Here we have Americans and safety tied together. There are a lot of people who can get next to that idea, but access to what? It takes a bit before one learns that they’re talking about access to medical marijuana.

But that’s a concept that shows how marijuana is turning the corner in our thinking. The idea behind safe access is that “regular” people who want marijuana should be able to access it safely. They shouldn’t have to make back-alley transactions with criminals to get their medicine.

And that’s another change in viewpoint. Marijuana is not an illicit drug; it’s medicine, which brings it full circle. It was medicine before it was made illegal in 1937, and now the 5,000-year history of its medical use is being embraced again.

Now, pro-marijuana groups have names such as Vermont’s Protect Families First. Names like this have traditionally belonged to the conservative Christian arena (for example James Dobson’s Focus on the Family), but the idea of protecting families from the effects of anti-drug policy. The Coalition for a Safer Detroit, which brought Proposal M to voters last year decriminalizing use of small amounts of marijuana, is another example.

Making Detroit safer? Hey, who doesn’t want that? They use the same name for other decriminalization initiatives in the state: Coalition for a Safer Lansing put that question on yesterday’s ballot and the Coalition for a Safer Michigan is taking on things statewide.

“It’s interesting,” says Tom Angell, founder and chairman of Marijuana Majority. “Some of those names could seem a little bit safer and more welcoming to people, but it seems a little evasive. When people find out what it really is they might be annoyed.”
Angell didn’t pull any punches in naming his organization. “Marijuana Majority is very clear that were talking about a majority of voters support changing marijuana laws,” says Angell. “Another reason I chose it is that it’s evocative of the Moral Majority.”

The Moral Majority was a conservative fundamentalist Christian organization during the 1980s that was instrumental in creating today’s Christian right movement. We’re moral and we’re the majority it claimed, truthfully or not.

In the marijuana debate, the message in the name can be a key to its attraction. One of the most sophisticated anti-marijuana legalization organizations out there is Patrick Kennedy’s “Smart Approaches to Marijuana” (SAM).

The name indicates there are better ways to deal with it than the current system. SAM advocates a public health approach to the plant, but is strictly against any type of legalization. Its biggest contention is that we’ve got to keep it away from the kids.

Actually that’s big on both sides of this issue. Everybody wants to save the children. The anti-marijuana people want to save the children from the scourge of marijuana; the pro-marijuana people want to save the children from the effects of the drug war by regulating it only for adults.

Even the growing evidence is split. There is emerging information that heavy marijuana use by teenagers can negatively affect their IQs later in life. There is also growing evidence that CBD-rich marijuana is an effective medication for children who suffer from seizures.

“So much has been made of marijuana’s danger to children,” says Lee. “I think it’s amazing the results they’re seeing with CBD and epileptic kids. It has a miraculous effect for children who are very sick, and a great irony that it’s turned out that way.”
What amazes me the most is that people are talking about marijuana! It was once a hush-hush subject, and now it’s being discussed in communities across the country and at the highest levels of government. And a lot of that discussion is introducing real evidence rather than hysterical opinions.

“Marijuana is a loaded term,” says Lee. “It remains a loaded term in the culture, even as it is more widely accepted. … I don’t think we should run away from the fact that marijuana is a good plant that has many benefits. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in the word marijuana.”

More by Larry Gabriel

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