Before brushing into a zeitgeist of parenthood when I illustrated a not-for-bedtime-story, Go the Fuck to Sleep, I wrote and illustrated a children’s book that was, for some, even more controversial. In 2005, I published It’s Just a Plant — A Children’s Story About Marijuana, a tool for parents to discuss a complicated plant with their kids. I recently released an updated edition. This time around, I was surprised to find an audience more sympathetic to my subject, but one that would also admonish me for using the word “marijuana” in its discussion. I received suggestions from pro-pot activists that we eradicate the word “marijuana,” all the while pushing to ensure safe and legal access to “cannabis.” As their story goes, the history of marijuana prohibition in the United States was born of racism when “cannabis” was transformed into “marijuana” to conflate its use with law-breaking Mexican immigrants. So why not cancel the problematic term?
Evidence suggests wild plants of the genus Cannabis were first domesticated around 12,000 years ago in what is now Northwest China, and were selected over millenia for either fiber production (now commonly known as mostly-non-psychoactive “hemp” types) or for increased inebriant effects. Chinese landraces were brought to the New World by European colonists during the 16th century. By the late 19th century, hemp had become an important industrial crop in the United States, medicines with a cannabis base were available, and psychoactive flowers of the plant became a small fad in the form of hashish. But widespread use of smokeable cannabis was popularized by immigrant communities from the South. In 1910, the Mexican Revolution sparked a wave of Mexican refugees aiming to settle in southwestern United States; some brought their custom of “marijuana” use. Caribbean immigrants also brought the plant to southern coastal cities, especially New Orleans, where it was introduced to jazz musicians, whose travels spread the herb even further throughout the country.
“When a Mexican is under the influence of Marihuana he imagines that he can, single-handed, whip the entire regular United States army, while if reinforced by several other Mexicans, also under the influence of the drug, he might include a few European nations in his dream conquests”
–The Ogden Standard, September 25, 1915
Early prejudices against marijuana were conflated with fears of these immigrants, who were branded as contagions of an encroaching “Marijuana Menace.” Horrifying crimes were attributed to marijuana smokers. The U.S. Library of Congress has chronicled early newspaper reporting on the plant as consistently alarming accounts of violence and wickedness. “Marijuana continues to impel people of the lower order to wild and desperate deeds,” was a typical observation of the era. As recently as 1925, one can find a New York Times headline reading “Mexican, Crazed by Marijuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife.” Marijuana sounded foreign and dangerous to white Americans, many of whom had wild hemp growing in their backyard. As the Great Depression fueled massive unemployment, resentment and fear of immigrants rose alongside it, escalating concerns about the loco weed. Incendiary reports continued to link deviant behavior to the plant and its associated communities. The first local ordinance prohibiting marijuana in the United States was made at the Mexican border in El Paso, Texas. The El Paso Times stated that “Marihuana is known to create a lust for human blood in the users and some of the most atrocious crimes committed in the city and elsewhere have been attributed to these fiends.” By 1931, 29 states had outlawed the plant.
One year earlier, Harry J. Anslinger became the first commissioner of the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He also used “marijuana” as a linguistic boogeyman to stoke racist prejudices. In testimony before Congress, Anslinger quoted a letter saying, “I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That’s why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons, most of who [sic] are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions.” Anslinger despised jazz music and railed against the plant’s influence on its Black musicians too. Anslinger would lead the war against marijuana through the administrations of seven U.S. presidents (I also wrote a picture book about him), until resigning under President Nixon in 1970.
Of course, the racist legacy of anti-marijuana sentiment did not stop there. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people,” Nixon domestic policy adviser John Ehrlichman told journalist Dan Baum. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” It was Richard Nixon who declared the “War on Drugs” that continues to ravage communities of color today.
This is why many activists and drug policy reformers would like to retire “marijuana” and instead have us use the scientific name of the plant, “cannabis.” The general, well-meaning argument being, “don’t replay and reinforce the racist history of the word ‘marijuana’.” Harborside dispensaries, one of the oldest and largest cannabis retailers in the U.S., says they will use the term “sparingly”: “The word ‘marijuana’ is an emotional, pejorative term that has played a key role in creating the negative stigma that still tragically clings to this holistic, herbal medicine. Most cannabis users recognize the ‘marijuana’ as offensive, once they learn its history.” The founder of an Oregon-based pot brand says, “Any term applied to cannabis other than cannabis is negligent and abusive behavior that we abhor. The term marijuana is a Mexican slur.” The Associated Press even weighed in, allowing “marijuana” in its AP Stylebook, but noting that “Some governments and other entities prefer ‘cannabis’ because of arguments that the term marijuana was popularized in the United States in the early 20th century to stoke anti-Mexican sentiment.”
Of course, the term marijuana was popularized in Mexico before anyone in the United States could use it for anti-Mexican sentiment. And as it turns out, Mexico was pushing many of the most salacious Reefer Madness fantasies before they even reached the U.S. In Home Grown — Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs, author and professor Isaac Campos shares a rich history of how prohibitionist approaches to marijuana use, and the associated fear campaigns against it, actually began in Mexico and ultimately influenced its northern neighbors’ drug warrior instincts.
In June 1545, the Spanish Crown first ordered its subjects to sow cannabis in the New World—this was the industrious “hemp” version of the plant, or “cáñamo” as it was called in Spanish, used for making ropes, fabric, and sails that helped fuel imperial expansion. Over the following decades, the plant found its way into indigenous medical-religious practices with flowers cultivated into varieties producing inebriating effects. These “lower-class” communities were already subject to relative suspicions, and their non-commercial, intoxicating use of the plant grew to be associated with behaviors of madness and mayhem. Mexican authorities banned marijuana nationwide in 1920, some seventeen years prior to similar legislation in the United States. As Campos summarizes in his book, “…the origins of the War on Drugs lie in the legal and ideological roots of prohibition. With respect to marijuana in North America, these origins have their deepest roots in Mexico.”
I’ve been chastised more than once by earnest readers of my children’s book about, um… marijuana. Such advocates of the plant believe they’re rectifying a racist history by erasing the early Mexican term: “Can you please not use the word ‘marijuana’ when you mean ‘cannabis’?”
It’s Just a Plant — A Children’s Story About Marijuana explains a multifaceted plant and doesn’t shy away from race and racism’s role in its criminalization. I’ve been asked why I made a scene in the book depicting Black men smoking the plant on a street corner (where they are harassed by police officers), and why the main characters of the story seem explicitly Latina: “Why would you further these stereotypes in a book supposedly about breaking down stereotypes and prejudice?” Dear Reader… people of color use marijuana! If you think that is offensive, you’ve missed the point of my book: all types of people enjoy benefits of this plant. Beautifully and thankfully, that includes Brown and Black people, too many of whom have weathered great injustices along the way for it.
So, I’m pushing back. With all due respect to sensitive readers whose anti-racist intentions I applaud, I love the word “marijuana” and have no intention of going cannabis exclusive (I do use that term, as well as an enormously fun list of words that fit perfectly into children’s book prose: cheeba, muggles, reefer, ganja, et al). That half of my ancestry comes from Mexico may give me some license, but I’m happy with everybody using the mouthful of a word. I wield it in different accents and cadences, from the gringo “marrywonna” to breaking it up with a satisfying rrrrrroll of the Spanish R. ¡Que linda! Amidst our current fixation on Cancel Culture, I also recognize the irony of progressive potheads arguing to erase a word that began in Mexican history, and who may even rescind allyship to Mexican-Americans like myself who use it in our work, all because the word got weaponzied by anti-immigrant White Americans. Marijuana is a word I’m happy to reclaim, whether from American law enforcement who use it to stoke xenophobia, or from Mexican authorities fearful of their indigenous, poor, pioneering farmers of the plant. Of course, Mexico legalized recreational use of marijuana earlier this year. Let’s hope the U.S. can follow suit and not let semantics be an obstacle to our higher goals.