Weed, ganja, bud, mota, skunk, grifa…There is no end to the names that we have given this amazing plant, and like all things that exist in this world, each name comes with its own story.
But there is one name that is arguably the most historically and politically charged among all candidates: marijuana.
When we hear this word today, it brings back prohibition-era imagery that can seem at great odds with our current world. When we look back at films like Reefer Madness and old sensationalist newspaper headlines espousing cannabis-induced criminality as the next great threat to society, we are reminded again and again of how this word was used in the context of the persecution of growers, distributors and consumers of this plant, and in particular when it comes to people of colour.
To many of us, this word is little else than a symbol of our shameful past. And yes, it is key that the lessons of the past are learned so that we may not repeat them.
But before we decide that this term should be discarded as some prohibitionist cultural relic, perhaps we should take a moment to appreciate the full story that it has to tell.
Marihuana in Mexico
First, we must remember that marijuana, is the anglicized spelling of a Spanish word that is more commonly spelled marihuana or mariguana.
In Mexico, marihuana is simply what the plant is called. Anglophones need to make sure to keep this in mind. The political charge of a word often lies in the eye of the beholder.
In pre-school, little kids are taught to sing the classic Mexican revolutionary song La Cucaracha, and no Mexican bats an eye when they hit that very lovely part in the chorus that mentions smoking marijuana. In Mexican culture, the marihuana plant is plainly part of our less celebrated national identity.
And I say “less celebrated” because, in effect, this herb is seen as a “poor man’s drug” in what is a highly classist, catholic majority society.
Catholicism truly is the one thing that brings together the rich and the poor in a country like Mexico, where class divisions run deep.
Mexico is a weird place when you step back and really think about it. The dominating catholic culture sees wine as the holy sacrament, while traditional native drugs are considered ‘evil’. Meanwhile, the majority of the population is either native or of native-decent.
The demonization of these drugs and the people who use them has always been an intrinsic part of the oppressive infrastructure that denigrates the ancestry of the majority of Mexican citizens.
Somehow, sweeping the word marihuana under the rug and disparaging its use in popular culture just feels like a continuation of a colonial past where the Western ways of being, thinking and even talking slowly displace everything that was before.
The mysterious origins of Native American cannabis culture
Tracing back the origins of this globally ubiquitous term presents us with new doors of possibility in terms of how we can view its use in the context of our past and our present.
If we go back even before the Mexican Revolution we find ourselves in a time where Native Americans could have received this plant from multiple routes, at multiple times.
The earliest record of cannabis in the Americas dates back to about 200 AD in Peru, where traces of cannabis were found in the preserved bodies of mummies.
Although these findings have been hotly contested, the hair analysis that indicates the likely consumption of these drugs by the deceased individuals has never been disproven.
Recently molar studies have confirmed that Polynesians did in fact reach South America many hundreds of years before Europeans, trading and mixing with the local people.
The significance of these ancient trade routes has been up to now mostly unexplored as these recent findings are just now starting to turn the tide, allowing non-European pre-Columbian contact theories to finally be taken seriously by the scientific community.
However, there has been no demonstrable phonetic link between Native American words for cannabis and the word marihuana.
The Chinese word ma is the oldest known word for cannabis. Linguists have been able to demonstrate plausible links between this Chinese word and similar words that were spread by Scythian and Semitic language groups in the Middle East, which then, in turn, influenced the establishment of similar terms for this plant throughout North African language groups.
Knowing that Spain reached the Americas only a few years after it had released itself from the grips of North African colonists, some academics believe that the Moorish term maraj for hemp may have been part of the reason why the popular Spanish name Maria Juana was gradually morphed into marihuana.
Regardless of how this word came to reach the Americas, it is no coincidence that the term first developed in Mexico.
The marijuana cultural explosion
The country with the longest known history of large-scale marijuana cultivation in the American continent is indisputably Mexico.
By the 1700s, we see the first written record of people consuming the intoxicating form of cannabis in the Americas as reported by a priest living near Mexico City.
In written communications with other church officials, this particular priest alerts the church of a “new menace” (or at least one that had not been noticed up to this point): Mexican witchdoctors were selling an intoxicating edible form of cannabis out of their little market stalls. They were referred to as Pipiltzintzintlis in Nahuatl, the ancient language of the Aztecs and other people occupying the central Mexican highlands.
This herb concoction was being sold right next to other intoxicants like peyote and psilocybin producing mushrooms. The church was actively involved in persecuting the sellers of these “pagan” intoxicants and the healer traditions that came with them.
The earliest record of a Spanish word for cannabis was not actually marijuana but Maria Rosa, as it was recorded by a pharmacist in Guadalajara during the mid-1800s. At some point in the latter half of the century, Maria Rosa waned in popularity and marihuana had become more prevalent. In both cases, the Moorish word for hemp maraj comes to mind comes but we cannot answer the question with any certainty. We will likely never know exactly where this word came from, but there is a lot to be learned in these contemplations. The influence of Asian and African traders and workers is likely understated in the historical narrative and this is perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned throughout these ponderings.
But why did this word congeal into a solid, endurable form precisely at the time that it did?
The short answer is almost certainly: The Mexican Revolution. It was the first time that cannabis culture was allowed to rise and show its face to the world.
From that point forward, we can trace the slow growth of the world’s largest underground marihuana economy that would soon transform small farming communities like those found in Sinaloa, into some of the richest and most influential drug cartels in the world.
Meanwhile, up north the Jazz Age gave way to the counter-cultures of the 60s and 70s that would produce the most sophisticated cannabis market the world had ever seen. That story is intimately tied to the stories of Native American, African and Asian growers, traders and travellers that changed history by sharing their seeds and knowledge of this plant with the world.
For me, the word marihuana will always tie me back to my culture and to a past that extends beyond my own. This word, like all others, is a story and a link to a past that should not be forgotten.