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News >  Marijuana

Spin Control: ‘Marijuana’ racist? Washington Legislature’s silliest moment in 2014

With more than 100 bills addressing marijuana this session, it may be no surprise the silliest thing said so far has involved this topic.

Granted, we’re only a third of the way through the session, and a huge amount of silliness may lie ahead. But it will be hard for anyone to top a point being raised with great conviction – albeit not much thought – at several recent hearings on marijuana bills:

“ ‘Marijuana’ is a racial slur.”

Because of this, some medical marijuana proponents say, the state should stop using it, strike it from the law books, and replace all references with “cannabis.”

Dude, please. The state is struggling with two different sets of laws that spell out who can use this drug and for what purposes, what government agency controls which use, how much people can have, how much tax they’ll have to pay, where that tax money goes, where it can be grown, processed and sold, whether folks previously punished for using it might have their records expunged, all the while trying to keep the feds off its back. And you want to pitch a fit over a word?

What’s next, claiming that calling it “pot” is a cook-ist slur? Calling it “weed” is a plant-ist slur? Calling it “reefer” is a coral-ist slur?

There may be some tenuous etymological basis for the claim. Folks who study more about marijuana than the best way to ignite and inhale it have produced fairly detailed treatises about a 1930s federal drug official and his introduction of a term which up to then primarily was used among Mexican farm workers, possibly derived from an Indian word for prisoner, supplanting the more common term “cannabis” because it sounds scarier to white people who were just beginning to be interested in something that was popular with African-American jazz musicians and … This is, no doubt, much more interesting with the help of certain substances. But you get the drift.

Sleep-inducing pedantry aside, etymology does not, by itself, elevate “marijuana” to the status of racial slur.

Set aside the fact that Mexicans and other Hispanics are not a race, at least not according the folks that decide such things, the U.S. Census Bureau. They are an ethnic group. “Ethnic slur” probably doesn’t have the same bite.

Just because a term has its roots in Mexican Spanish, using it doesn’t automatically make it a slur. Otherwise, we would all be shamed into telling the waiter to bring us some beans, rice, meat and hot sauce rolled up in a round flat piece of pressed flour and a glass with ice, lime juice, triple sec and that alcohol they make out of cactus juice, rather than simply ordering a burrito and a margarita.

A slur has to be recognized as denigrating to a certain group of people, and widely used as such by another group of people. Thus there is no question that the “N-word” is a slur, with the possible exception of when one African-American uses it in a particular context with another African-American. (I’m not wading into an argument for which I have no standing.)

But if a person who wasn’t African-American were to throw out the N-word when talking to or about African-Americans, most folks would say that’s a racial slur. Ask Paula Deen.

If a person who didn’t use the drug were to toss out the word marijuana when talking to a person who uses the drug, would the latter be offended? Or would they just ask if the former wanted some?

It’s quite possible that Harry Anslinger, the longtime head of the Federal Narcotics Bureau who pushed the word into the public lexicon, had racist views about who used the drug when he started his anti-marijuana campaign in the 1930s. Anslinger is long dead and hasn’t been in charge of U.S. drug policy since 1962. In the intervening half-century, popular culture had assimilated the word regardless of its origins.

Adopting a term from another language into English, even if it has questionable origins, isn’t racist. It is the very essence of our language.

“Cannabis,” by the way, is from Latin and Greek. And you know what those Mediterranean-types are like. We definitely shouldn’t use any of their words in state law.

Spin Control, a weekly column by Olympia reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items, videos and reader comments at
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