Isaac Campos, a professor of Latin American History at the University of Cincinnati and author of "Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs," recently published a study that illuminate the history of the word “marijuana.” We spoke with him about misconceptions surrounding the word’s origin.
The Rolling Paper: In recent years, the idea that the term “marijuana” has racist connotations has become very popular. What did you find out about the topic during your research?
Isaac Campos: Well, I just don’t think that’s true at all. The idea that it’s racist has its origins in the conspiracy theories of a hugely influential marijuana activist named Jack Herer. Back in the 1980s, Herer claimed that Harry Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper publisher, made a conscious effort to use the word “marijuana” in order to more closely associate the drug with Mexican immigrants and in that way demonize it. Herer argued that this word was hardly known in the United States before the 1930s, but then Anslinger and especially Hearst consciously made an effort to popularize it. But he just made that up as far as I can tell. I’m not aware of a single shred of evidence that any decision was made by anyone to use this word which is simply the common Mexican term for intoxicant and medicinal cannabis. And it’s now clear that the word just came into the American lexicon quite naturally beginning in the 1890s, as news of this drug began spreading from Mexico. I demonstrate this in detail in the ninth chapter of my book. And that news already came with lots of frightening details given that in Mexico, marijuana was widely believed to cause madness and violence. Anti-Mexican attitudes weren’t necessary to demonize cannabis, as Mexicans had for decades themselves been demonizing cannabis. Furthermore, the most common word in the U.S. for intoxicant cannabis was “hashish,” a foreign word that had extremely “orientalist” and, if you’d like, racist connotations.
No one in the 1930s needed to make the argument that this was a foreign substance. As I demonstrate on my website (thedrugpage.org), by 1910 the word “hashish” and those orientalist connotations were already well entrenched in the United States.
But Herer made his claims on almost no evidence as I detailed in the second post of my website, and later other activists ran with the idea and decided that the word itself is racist. It’s not. It’s just a Mexican word.
The same way that “salsa” is a Mexican word for “sauce,” but we use it to refer to certain types of Mexican sauces. In the same way, cannabis smoked in cigarettes, as it was used in Mexico, came to be called “marijuana” in the U.S., whereas medicinal cannabis was often called “Cannabis indica” and intoxicant cannabis usually taken in edible doses was generally called “hashish” or “Indian hemp.” And it was the spread of that culture of use, that is, smoking in cigarettes, that, among other factors, probably had something to do with the growing popularity of cannabis as an intoxicant in the early 20th-century U.S., probably because smoking allows users to more carefully titrate their doses and thus avoid the often very unpleasant symptoms of taking too much that often occurs when users take large edible doses. There are lots of nineteenth century reports of such non-fatal “overdoses” in the United States.
So does that mean that the entire narrative that Hearst was looking to devalue hemp and sell more paper just completely made up?
Yes, as far as I can tell, it's totally made up. It begins from the premise, clearly believed by Herer, that no rational person could ever want to prohibit the use of cannabis. But cannabis was a well known intoxicant in the early twentieth century with a reputation for producing very problematic effects in some users, whether highly unpleasant overdoses in the accounts of nineteenth century experimenters, or the “dreams” and “artificial paradises” of orientalist fiction, or the madness and violence that dominated the discourse about cannabis in Mexico, and this was a period when reformers were looking to limit access to essentially all intoxicants, not only opioids and cocaine, but alcohol too, not to mention, in the case of the most radical, tobacco and caffeine. The fact that cannabis got caught up on those efforts is hardly surprising. No conspiracy theory needed. But what’s interesting is that while Herer clearly invented a lot of this history out of whole cloth, his writing and activism helped motivate a whole army of other cannabis activists in the late 1980s and early 1990s to get, first, medical marijuana, and, second, recreational marijuana legalized. I think ending the war on marijuana has been an overall positive, so I’m in the interesting position of basically saying that getting history wrong here produced some positive outcomes! Though I also think that this version of history, where it was supposedly all racism, has also made it difficult for serious people to offer serious warnings that for a small but significant percentage of potential cannabis users, this can be a very harmful drug, whether in terms of addiction or mental health.
Now Herer was a very important figure in the cannabis reform movement. Indeed, various cannabis strains have been named after him in tribute. And he did a lot of good. So you know, God bless him.
But he also just made up a lot of stuff, just pulled it out of thin air. Typical conspiracy theory stuff—taking a bunch of vaguely related dots, connecting them, creatively filling in a lot of details, and doing so with great conviction. It’s not all the different from QAnon or any other major conspiracy theory, but in this case I think in the name of a relatively righteous cause. If you read the literature on conspiracy theories, these tend to emerge among people who feel absolutely powerless. It should be little surprise then that a major cannabis conspiracy theory emerged in the 1980s when the legalization movement was at its very lowest point. It was, after all, the apex of the Reagan war on drugs, and just a few short years after it looked like marijuana would be decriminalized under Jimmy Carter, something that crashed and burned in the blink of an eye. So it was a perfect time for conspiracy theories to take hold, and it totally did, and it was super influential. It was so influential that now this idea that the word “marijuana” is racist is out there, and they’re actually passing laws in some states to not use it in official documents and legislation.
And it's all just made up. It’s just not true. It’s not racist. It’s a Mexican word that just shows how
influential Mexican culture has been in the United States. Like tacos and salsa. Thus anyone who is
adamant that we shouldn’t say “marijuana” should probably stop saying “salsa” too.
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