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learn | 11.28.2019

The History of the Word Marijuana

The ever so popular and seemingly simple word “marijuana” has a surprisingly complex and dark past. Here is some history about the Mary Jane we all know and love.

Do you know where the term ‘marijuana’ comes from? Well you’re about to find out.

The “M” Word

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Photo credit: anna Hanks

The ever so popular and seemingly simple word “marijuana” has a surprisingly complex and dark past. The word was brought to life through anti-drug propaganda in the 1930s which helped inevitably lead to marijuana’s criminalization.


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Photo credit: Hannes Engelbrecht

It wasn’t long before the federal criminalization of cannabis, which was made possible through the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, that the term marijuana was widely used in the United States. Previously, the government (like everyone else) was calling it what it is—cannabis.

According to a 2005 study by Alan Piper, the earliest usage of a term that resembles marijuana appeared in a magazine in 1894, just over 40 years before federal criminalization and wasn’t seen or mentioned again for eleven years. In fact, the term marijuana was rarely used until after 1910. Once the anti-drug campaign picked up steam, the “reefer madness” of the 1930s took the word and quickly spread it across the country.

Unfortunately, the term marijuana and what lead to the criminalization of cannabis was founded in a mix of ignorance, racism, classism and powerful groups influencing policymakers for their own gain.

PBS created a Marijuana Timeline that outlines the situation. In this timeline, the stark difference of the attitudes regarding cannabis is outlined. The timeline describes how cannabis was a popular and flourishing ingredient, which at the time, was openly sold in public pharmacies. And similar to France, it became a fad in the US.

Despite cannabis’ popularity, things went downhill from there.

The Change

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Photo credit: Anton Prado PHOTO

After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, immigration into the United States increased dramatically. The influx of immigrants influenced the introduction of the recreational use of marijuana, which was  Mexico’s colloquial name for cannabis. Ignorant police officers in Texas began spreading rumors, claiming that marijuana incited violent crimes. After that, the drug became associated with immigrants,  further inciting fear and prejudice. Citizens then started pushing for the ban of marijuana. Within four short years, the marijuana game was set up to change. In 1914, El Paso Texas is said to be the first place to pass a piece of legislation which banned the possession or sale of marijuana. By 1931, 29 states had outlawed marijuana.


Despite more than 749,000 people being arrested in this country for marijuana-related offenses in 2012, it seems that (thankfully) the United States is finally moving away from “reefer madness” and into the 21st century. Today in 2015, 23 states have decriminalized marijuana—with more on the way.



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