Weed has undergone quite a few name changes over the years. To fully understand its transformation from a simple plant to what we know today as “pot,” “weed,” and “ganja,” you must retrace its history. Weed has been heavily politicized since its introduction into American mainstream consciousness.
Weed has since been intrinsically tied to the disruption of the American narrative. The late 1930s signaled a change in this American mystique. Hemlines were going up. Women were entering the workforce in droves. Jazz was the preeminent musical force and there were waves of immigrants coming into cities, indelibly marking the cultural landscapes they began to call home.
Industries were rapidly changing as well. No longer were materials like wood pulp a cheap alternative. Scholars suggest that powerful interests, including rich publisher William Randolph Hearst, used yellow journalism to discredit marijuana use.
Yellow journalism is a brand of reporting that elicits shock and awe due to the heavy use of sensationalist claims. Newspapers were trusted sources of information for many Americans.
The newspaper industry relied heavily on the support of its readers, which included a healthy dose of wood pulp for each paper printed. Business exec William Randolph Hearst is thought by many scholars as having large investments in the lumber industry.
According to NPR, early references to marijuana were largely benign. However, by 1905 or so, this began to change. There is debate as to whether this is due to Hearst’s influence, other factors, or a convergence of the two. What is not a matter of debate, is that early detractors of marijuana impacted legislative policies through propaganda.
Anti-marijuana propaganda had lots of help in the form of radical government pundits such as Harry Anslinger. Anslinger was vehemently anti-drug, but he was able to conflate marijuana use with the erosion of perceived American ideals.
Anslinger blamed jazz music, the influx of Mexican immigrants into city centers and the use of marijuana. As the head of the Federal Narcotics Bureau (the predecessor of the DEA), Anslinger wielded an incredible amount of influence.
This played upon xenophobic fears, and soon the tide was turning against weed. Under his leadership, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics shaped harsh anti-drug laws. Many of these laws included cannabis and cannabis derivatives.
The 1930s also signaled a profound change from the economic excesses of the 1920s. Jobs were scarce, there was increased competition from immigrant workers, and labor insecurities ran high. Americans, deep in the throes of the Great Depression, needed to feel in control.
“Reefer Madness” – 1936
One of the most influential pieces of propaganda against the use of weed was the 1936 movie Reefer Madness. This film centers on two teens with promising futures that are ultimately dashed due to their infatuation with marijuana.
The film goes on to warn parents that marijuana is a “menace,” and the main character, a concerned principal named Dr. Alfred Carroll, dramatically opines that “the next tragedy may be that of your daughter’s or your son’s….” The movie poster even references, “youthful marihuana victims.”
Reefer Madness single-handedly popularized cannabis joints as “reefer.” Etymologists are unsure as to the exact meaning of the term, though some suspect it may reference the Spanish word for “Grifo,” meaning “a smoker of cannabis.”
What’s in a Name? Marijuana Goes to Pot
The term “marijuana,” (or marihuana), is possibly based on the Mexican slang word for cannabis. It may have originally been “mejorana,” denoting a word describing the cooking spice oregano.
Marijuana’s Mexican heritage was the perfect spark to ignite what would be nearly a century of anti-cannabis rhetoric. Anslinger used the term “marihuana,” profusely in speeches and addresses to the American public. This often placed his ethnocentrism front and center, and the public responded by blaming marijuana for the ills in society.
When it came to propaganda, the more exotic-sounding the better. Fear of anything foreign led to newspapers hyping up the more unconventional terms for cannabis. Articles citing the illicit use of pot and its effects curried favor with a public that blamed marijuana for an uptick in violent crime.
People began to use these “exotic” names in street culture. No longer was cannabis just a plant. In fact, terms like “reefer” began to blend into the fabric of popular culture. Marijuana was also increasingly popular and was later broken down as “Mary Jane.”
Mary Jane first appeared in a Time Magazine feature on cannabis titled, “Music: The Weed.” This literary piece wove together a narrative that linked many of the well-known and lesser-known names for marijuana:
“To its users, the drug has many names—many of them evasive. Marijuana may be called muggles, mooter, Mary Warner, Mary Jane, Indian hay, loco weed, love weed, bambalacha, mohasky, mu, moocah, grass, tea or blue sage. Cigarets made from it are killers, goof-butts, joy-smokes, giggle-smokes or reefers. The word marijuana is of Mexican origin and means “the weed that intoxicates.”
The term “loco weed,” had been in use prior to the ‘40s. It referenced cannabis in a way that insinuated its effects while playing up its exotic background (loco is Spanish for “crazy”). Marijuana was also described as a “killer weed,” that was being distributed from the shadowy depths of Mexico. Movie posters from Reefer Madness called marijuana, “The Devil’s Weed.”
The 1950s ushered in even more propaganda, with films like Keep Off the Grass, popularizing the term “grass,” as a euphemism for cannabis.
Ganja, while a popular term, did not originate in Mexico. Instead, its use comes from the Sanskrit word (ganjha, गांजा) also describing cannabis. Soon after, another term, “potacion de guaya,” or “potiguaya.” was used to describe weed. Potacion de guaya roughly translates to “the drink of grief,” and was a potent alcoholic beverage infused with cannabis. The term was shortened and thus, “pot,” was born .
A Weed by Any Other Name
Today, cannabis boasts a litany of names. The names can describe not only the culture from whence it springs but often the strains, potency and other characteristics. Nowadays, weed is also known as hash, grass, dope, spliff, bud, nugs, and when rolled in papers and smoked, a blunt.
Modern times have seen an upheaval in the ways that marijuana’s image and rhetoric have been constructed. It is highly celebrated, with ‘420 friendly’ as shorthand for support of marijuana and much recently ‘710’ for all those that enjoy dabbing.
Other Modern Terms Include:
Nixon doesn’t describe the former president. Instead, it describes a very low-quality weed strain being passed off as a higher quality one.
Although dank is often used to describe the deep, earthy smell of most strains, it can also refer to the quality level of your weed. A high-quality level will have a deep, herbed, and earthy aroma that is quite potent.
Proponents have always touted marijuana as a naturally occurring plant. Much like spices such as marjoram, paprika, and oregano, marijuana also grows from the earth. Pro-marijuana activists point out that weed is not heavily synthesized like methamphetamine or other hard drugs. Marijuana is often called an “herb,” regarding its natural profile.
This term is a playful spin on the marijuana slang, “Mary Jane.”
Final Thoughts on Why Marijuana is Called Pot
Weed has had a colorful history. For thousands of years, it served as a palliative agent, assisting in the healing of mild wounds and body aches. It was even said to be utilized by the legendary Chinese Emperor Shen Nung around 2737 BC. Since that time, it was used for a variety of medicinal purposes, including glaucoma.
The early English colonies were even commanded to grow hemp, and Jamestown succeeded in this endeavor quite well. Marijuana was then used in various degrees over the years in many common, over-the-counter products.
It was only in the 1900s that resistance to cannabis took hold. The onslaught of propaganda, laws, and rhetoric from that point in history onwards has shaped, molded and informed how Americans not only think about weed but also how they talk about it.
Americans had been given a new lexicon, a new imagining of what weed was or could be. Names like “reefer,” “marijuana,” and “pot,” allowed many to give a voice to their nameless fears for a rapidly changing world.
Conventions were dying, and in the midst of a depression-era America, demagogues led the charge to wipe out marijuana use for good. However, it has become ingrained in the annals of our history. Its many names have given way to a new generation of users that look forward to completely legal weed.
Full legalization is looming, and while both proponents and opponents grapple with this new reality, the culture it ignited continues to blossom. As products in many states become legal, there has been a proliferation in the ways that users can consume weed.
This has given rise to an even more nuanced brand of colloquial resistance and in many cases – hope.