Thursday, November 7, 2013

Marijuana or Cannabis?

Marijuana or Cannabis?


An ongoing squabble within the marijuana reform community is about what to call it.  Is it marijuana or is it cannabis?  While marijuana is the most common term, many – primarily medical marijuana proponents – prefer cannabis and advocate for its general use.  This debate is not crucial; the world has plenty of room for many names for a plant.  It does, however, create an intra-tribal rancor that could be eased by an understanding of the roots and motives of the combatants. In other words, look at the history of plants of the genus Cannabis in American culture, medicine, and law.

Up until the 1930s, America had treated this plant as if it were four separate entities, recognizing no connection among them.  Hemp was grown for fiber from the earliest colonial days.  Beginning in about 1840 tincture of cannabis was used medicinally.  After the Civil War, a small elite in East Coast cities started eating hashish in imitation of the French literary salons.  And after the Mexican Revolution, marijuana crossed the border and, spread by itinerant musicians and maritime seamen, migrated from the Southwest and New Orleans to Kansas City, Chicago, New York, Boston, and Los Angeles.  No one noticed a relationship among these four cultures (for more on this topic see my earlier “Prehistory of Marijuana”, Parts I and II, and “Marijuana Comes to the Americas).

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 brought marijuana together with what was left of the other three cultures for the first time.  In objecting to that Act, the AMA, recognizing the identity of marijuana and medical cannabis protested the Act would foreclose needed medical research.  Paint manufactures and bird seed sellers (who claimed that canaries would not sing without hemp seed) were allowed to import sterile hemp seeds.  Soon thereafter, in the build-up to World War II, hemp cultivation was allowed for duration of the war.  That law, for the first time, forced recognition of the unity of the four cultures.

At the time the Act was passed, three of the four cultures had faded into obscurity – almost extinction.  Hashish, always a small elitist cult, had shrunk to invisibility during the Progressive Era migrations and the rise of the speak-easy culture of alcohol Prohibition[1].  Hemp had always been labor-intensive both in cultivation and preparation.  When slavery ended, it became economically unproductive.  As sailing ships were replaced by steam, the primary market for ropes and sail cloth disappeared; and America’s conquest of the Philippine Islands made cheap sisal available as a replacement.  Currency was the only remaining market, and when the U. S. left the gold standard, hemp bills were replaced by rag-paper money.  Only the silent canaries and a few specialty paint manufacturers still consumed hemp.  

Cannabis entered Western medicine with O’Shaughnessy’s articles in the 1830s and remained for about one hundred years.  The first edition of Merck’s Manual listed over twenty applications, but its use was never widespread.  “Granny Books”, household medical handbooks for those living in rural areas without professional health care, and memoirs and biographies of frontier doctors make little mention of it.  By the end of the nineteenth century it had been replaced for pain relief – its major use – by oral and injected morphine and aspirin.  A 1913 study of pharmacists and drug stores by congressional investigators preparing for the Harrison Narcotics Act reported no need to move against Cannabis, having found fewer than ten preparations available and three of use for external use in corn plasters.  When the AMA testified in Congress against the Marihuana Tax Act, it warned about foreclosing research but made no mention of therapy.  Although expensive and very hard to obtain, cannabis remained available for therapy until the Boggs Amendments of 1951, but no one objected to its removal from the U. S. P. in 1942.  It had been removed from the doctor’s black bag long before that.

For roughly forty years, from 1937 until the mid-1970s, marijuana is the only one of the four cultures representing the plant in America.  And that representation was as an outlaw, dangerous drug.  And its use grew exponentially during that period.  In 1970, Nixon declared War on Drugs, and the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (soon to become the DEA) shifted its focus from heroin to marijuana.

Among those now targeted was a small group of desperate patients suffering from terminal or life-threatening diseases (including cancers, AIDS, and glaucoma) who, finding no relief from mainstream medicine, turned to marijuana for help. These people were beset by two, and for some three, oppressive forces.  Conventional medicine could give them little relief.  For some, the nature of their disease brought social opprobrium; and the government treated them as felonious drug fiends.  But they persisted; the value of marijuana in treatment of many disorders was established; their numbers increased; professional associations recognized the value of their treatments; states – starting with California in 1996 and mounting to over twenty today – legally recognized their medicine; and public polls swung in their favor.

One of their tactics was to eschew the criminal aura associated with marijuana.  To do so, they resurrected the old name cannabis and built a creation myth around its hazy medical past. (Of course, if they wish to be accurate, they would limit cannabis to tinctures, call edibles hashish, and use marijuana for smokeable unprocessed plant buds.)

Just recently claims have been advanced that “marijuana” should not be used because of the xenophobic shades it acquired in the past.  But marijuana had established its presence in the U. S. before the hatred of Mexicans developed as a political issue.  Instead, its ethnic heritage should be honored, just as is done with enchiladas, curry, and Chianti.

The reform tent is broad enough for multiple names to be used.  However, if a single name is selected, it should be one that truly honors the history and heritage of the plant.  The roots of American marijuana lie, not in Europe, but in India, home of bhang and ganj.  From there it migrated to Jamaica with imported laborers and then to Panama and Mexico before coming to the U. S.  We should recognize that the Rastafarians truly know its history.  We should join them and call ganja by its proper name.

[1] I have not run across a single reference to hashish in America between 1920 and 1960.


  1. AMA did cite therapeutic uses, not just research. See what Woodward said about the irreplacable use of Cannabis in psychotherapy to revive hidden memories. Also antiquecannabismuseum has documented 2000 pre-1937 cannabis preparations on market. For hashish references from 1920-1960, see occult lit and films

  2. I like them all, marijuana, cannabis, ganja, hemp, weed, reefer, bring me all of them.