A Washington Post headline from 1905 read: “Terrors of Marihuana!” The story was one of many fed to the press by cannabis prohibitionists who wanted to see the plant banned. At the time, most readers knew about cannabis from advertisements, doctors and the local pharmacy, but “marihuana” (as it was originally spelt) was presumably something totally different. The Greek word κάνναβις—transliterated into Latin as “cannabis”—likely originated with the Scythian or Thracian tribes a long time ago. Marihuana, on the other hand, is local Spanish slang that likely originated in the late 1800s, yet its etymology is largely shrouded in mystery because the term was so rarely used. In fact, the general public first learned the term through prohibitionist propaganda that treated marihuana as a new threat, not the cannabis with which the public was already familiar. Why did prohibitionists adopt an obscure slang term rather than use the standard botanical and medical name? Where do researchers believe the word “marihuana” originated, and how did it eventually become the common name for cannabis? PRØHBTD explains.
Is the Term "Marijuana" Racist?
Marijuana is just a word, so it is not inherently racist, but a strong case can be made that prohibitionists specifically used the word to exploit racism and rising xenophobia.
In the early 1900s, the Mexican Revolution sparked a mass migration north, and individuals of Mexican heritage in the United States increased from 100,000 in 1900 to 1.5 million in 1930. During this time, anti-Mexican sentiments spiked in the U.S., highlighted by the illegal Bisbee Deportation in 1917 and the government-backed Mexican Repatriation in the 1920s and ʼ30s that forcefully returned people of Mexican descent—many of whom were U.S. citizens—to Mexico without due process. The Great Depression only made matters worse as American workers competed with Mexican farm laborers who often agreed to work for lower wages.
Against this background, prohibitionists like Harry Anslinger—a former alcohol prohibitionist who ran the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962—started to use the term “marihuana” instead of cannabis while spouting outrageous claims about this new public menace. Anslinger feed the media endless crazy marihuana-related stories about axe murderers and rapists (almost always non-white) from his Gore Files, and media tycoon William Hearst—whose anti-Mexican sentiments likely stem in part from looting and lost family lands during the Mexican Revolution—was happy to spread the tall tales through his various newspapers. Hearst is, after all, one of the godfathers of yellow journalism in which publishers sensationalize the news in heinous ways to drive up circulation.
The commonly accepted theory is that Anslinger utilized the term marihuana to make the plant sound foreign, stoke already simmering anti-Mexican racism and avoid any associations with cannabis. The general public did not have televisions or internet, just newspapers that often printed yellow ink, telling them about a new Mexican drug that made people go crazy. Naturally, even people who took cannabis for medicinal reasons turned against the new Mexican menace.
In 1937, Anslinger went before the Congressional Ways and Means Committee, chaired by his buddy Robert Lee Doughton, a Confederate Army captain’s son who also wanted to prohibit cannabis. During his testimony about marihuana use, Anslinger said, “Some people will fly into a delirious rage, and they are temporarily irresponsible and may commit violent crimes,” while Doughton called the “menace” an “evil” that made people “become criminals.”
The one person who disagreed with these assessments was Dr. William Woodward of the American Medical Association, who argued against cannabis prohibition in the 1937 hearing. Highlighting the irregular vernacular, he stated, “I use the word ‘cannabis’ in preference to the word ‘marihuana’ because cannabis is the correct term for describing the plant and its products. The term ‘marijuana’ is a mongrel word that has crept into this country over the Mexican border and has no general meaning... It is not recognized in medicine, and hardly recognized even in the Treasury Department. Marihuana is not the correct term. It was the use of the term ‘marihuana’ rather than the use of the term ‘cannabis’ or the use of the term ‘Indian hemp’ that was responsible, as you realized probably, a day or two ago, for the failure of the dealers in Indian hemp seed to connect up this bill with their business until rather late in the day.”
As noted by the only doctor in the hearings, people who embraced marihuana prohibition often had no idea it had anything to do with cannabis or hemp. Anslinger and Hearst arguably embraced the xenophobic aspects inherent in the term, giving it a racist intent, but the use of marihuana also disguised exactly what it was the prohibitionists wanted to ban.
Even if the word “marihuana” (or the modern “marijuana”) is not racist itself, cannabis prohibition is indeed rooted in racism, yellow journalism and semantic trickery. At least the alcohol prohibitionists had enough class to say they wanted to prohibit alcohol.
Hooked on Euphonics
Marihuana, in its original spelling, is a Spanish slang term that came across the border from Mexico. Many believe Spanish speakers adopted the word from another language, but some suggest that marihuana is actually a euphonic combination of the names María and Juana. If true, the first half of the term could be a nod to Mother Mary, which would certainly make the etymology of marihuana that much more interesting. Either way, the euphonic name combination was certainly not unprecedented. Consider the 14th-century noblewoman María Juana de Padilla or the Catholic saint Mother Juana María Condesa Lluch. Other examples include Duchess Marie Jeanne and Archduchess Maria Johanna Gabriela, both names that translate as María Juana in Spanish. Northeast Argentina even has a town called María Juana! In any case, María and Juana, which translate as Mary Jane in English, were possibly combined to create the word “marihuana” in Spanish.
Cannabis history expert Dr. Barney Warf, the author of High Points and a professor at the University of Kansas, believes this is the most likely origin theory. He told PRØHBTD the following: "I have come across the many different hypotheses that the word itself comes from various possible languages. I have never seen a convincing account of any of those. I think that it's just simply a version of the Spanish María and Juana, which is a very common name in much of Latin America. Frequently, women have two first names. It was probably a slang term that was being used somewhere in Latin America and then got popularized. I tend to use the word cannabis rather than marijuana because marijuana is just one of a number of nicknames for it. Weed, ganja and others. I'm very skeptical of theories that the word marijuana came from any other language besides Spanish."
The "Marihuana" Adoption
When it comes to the etymology of “marihuana,” the most commonly accepted theory is that Spanish-speaking Mexicans adopted the word from another language. Many believe that language was Chinese.
Mexico experienced a mass Chinese immigration in the late 1800s, many of whom worked on the railroad, and the 1893 Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation enticed Chinese immigrants by giving them the same legal rights as Mexican nationals. Ironically, many of the Chinese actually arrived from the United States where they originally migrated. Cannabis likely first grew in Central Asia, and findings suggest it arrived in China not long after. “Ma ren hua” roughly means “hemp seed flowers” in Chinese, and Mexicans possibly adopted the term as “marihuana” in Spanish. Adding weight to this theory, oregano chino—or “Chinese oregano”—was possibly another slang term for cannabis in Mexico, highlighting the connection between cannabis and Chinese culture.
Several other theories also exist. Portugal took many slaves from West African countries like Angola, which has a long history with cannabis, and brought them to Brazil. The Bantu dialect in Angola refers to cannabis as ma’kaña, which the Brazilian Portuguese adopted as maconha. Similarly, others suggested the term comes from old Portuguese words maran guango that suggest intoxication. These words, when adopted into Spanish, could change to marihuana. While it is unclear how the term came to Mexico, this theory at least puts the origin of marihuana in Latin America.
Still, others suggest the term marihuana arose from an indigenous language such as the Uto-Aztecan Nahuatl or Andean Quechua. Arch prohibitionist Harry Anslinger popularized the theory that marihuana comes from the Nahuatl word mallihuan (prisoner), but linguists have largely dismissed this theory.
Another strong possibility is that the foreign-language word remains of unknown origin, and a small group in Western Mexico adopted it as marihuana in Spanish. When the Mexican Revolution started in 1910, many nationals migrated to the United States, some of whom brought the slang term with them. Decades later, English-speakers changed the spelling to marijuana, which is the common usage today.
The Prohibitionist "Prisoner" Theory
Harry Anslinger, arch prohibitionist and head of the U.S. Narcotics Bureau, argued that the word “marihuana” came from the Aztec language Nahuatl. Mallihuan, according to Anslinger, was a combination of mallin (prisoner), hua (property) and ana (to capture). Via this tortured linguistic feat, he claimed the original meaning of marihuana was “captured prisoner,” a reference to the power of cannabis addiction. Experts largely dismiss this theory because it involves a whole bunch of linguistic assumptions and leaps, which is further complicated by the fact that the Aztecs did not have a history with cannabis. The introduction of cannabis came later during the colonization of the Americas. Nevertheless, many people believed Anslinger’s theory at the time, which is why Dr. William Woodward of the American Medical Association said to a congressional committee, “There is nothing in the medicinal use of cannabis that has any relation to cannabis addiction.” The doctor directly opposed Anslinger in the hearing, that unfortunately went in favor of prohibition and criminalizing cannabis.