Marijuana: Uncovering Its Historical Meaning

By Javier Armas

Founder of the Bay Area Latino/a Cannabis Alliance “BALCA”, Author of Budtender Education book. Oakland, California


“The emergence of marijuana smoking in early twentieth century America was catalyzed mainly by the tumultuous Mexican Revolution.”
-Martin Lee, Smoke Signals 


Marijuana: the word evokes strong feelings in many communities, especially communities of color due to a deep history of criminalization and cultural stigmatization. Alex Halperin fairly recently wrote an article in the Guardian titled Marijuana: is it time to stop using a word with racist roots?  The author goes so far to even compare Marijuana with the N_____ word, “As with other symbols of past oppression, from the pink triangle to the n-word, there’s a powerful tradition of marginalized communities redeploying symbols of their oppression.”  

To jump back in time, the Spanish brought Cáñamo to “New Spain,” the Mexico territory in approximately 1530 according to leading historians . Indigenous laborers grew the same plant in their own special gardens. It was the same Cáñamo from the Spanish, but the Indigenous consumed the bioavailable properties for its medical benefits calling it Pipiltzintzintlis. The Indigenous communities gave the definition of Pipiltzintzintlis as the “meaning of most noble princes”  due such medical benefits from the cannabinoids. Pipiltzintzintlis was illegal, but Cáñamo was legally mandated for industrial needs, such as rope and even understood as two different plants. The Spanish inquisition’s disciplinary measures were deadly, and healers needed to clandestinely adapt. Psychoactive plants were all illegal, including peyote and cannabis. Indigenous influenced healers connected to herbal markets known as Herbolarias in the early 1800s disguised psychoactive plants with names such as Rosa, Maria and Juana, sounding more Christian and Spanish. Two of these names organically merged into Mariguana and Marihuana. Mexico founded the Academy of Pharmacy in 1838, whose principal task was to create Mexico’s first national pharmacopoeia. Completed in 1842, and published four years later, a reference to Mariguana, was identified as a narcotic. Interestingly enough the pharmacopoeia has a list “The Most Common Elemental Medicines,” which includes; Cannabis indica, Rosa María, Cáñamo, del Pais, Mariguana, Cannabis sativa, aka Cáñamo. This was done out of the struggle for Mexican independence established in 1810 and the Republic with a constitution in 1824. The word Marihuana embodied a plant based indigenous knowledge accumulated and defended against Spanish colonialism, but the name was born after colonialism. The meaning of the name can be tied to the preservation of Indigenous cannabis and ecological knowledge after the formal ending of colonialism. In 1810 was the Mexican independence from Spain, in 1824 Mexico became a Constitutional Republic and in 1842 Mariguana/Marihuana terms were defined in the national sciences of Mexico, demonstrating how they became part of the spine of Mexican history and part of the standardization of its sciences. The United States Pharmacopeia also listed “marihuana” as a recognized medicine from 1850 through 1942.  

In the years of the Mexican-American war, tensions between the two countries grew, including the Mexican-American position within the US. Legal Scholar, John Hudak in his book Marijuana explains, “As Americans sought a pretext to vilify this new immigrant community, they found an ideal culprit in marijuana...a substance used for a variety of purposes in Mexican culture at the time..”  As the Mexican identity was forming from 1810 to the 1850s, the Mexican-American identity from 1850s-1900 was also being created. The term Marihuana in Mexico became Marijuana in the US. Indigenous and Mexicans identified rebelliously with Marihuana against the Spanish inquisition and their proceeding medical policies as Mexican-Americans did with Marijuana and the hostile racial system found in the US. With the movement towards the US, the term evolved into Marijuana, with a Mexican immigrant and Mexican-American subject, practicing the medicine of the herb, and transferring the knowledge within the US.  Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics stated, “Marijuana was introduced into the United States from Mexico, and swept across America with incredible speed. ”The word Marijuana was tied to “Loco Weed,” attacked as a posion that leads to murder, violence and rape, mirroring how how Mexican immigrants were politically attacked as an unwanted population. The contemporary attack on the word Marijuana as racist, is an Orwellian twist.  In the legal world there are valid reasons to challenge the contextual usage of the word as it invokes criminal stigmas. But the elimination of the word still erases an important component of Chicano, Mexican, and Indigenous history and experience with it. 

We also cannot separate the Chicano contribution without recognizing Indiegenous knowledge tied to it. As a strong contemporary example, one of the first cities to decriminalize entheogenic plants, including Psilocybin mushrooms, was Oakland, California. City Council Noel Gallo, leader of the Fruitvale district, identifies as Chicano, within a district that is the most populated with Chicano and Mexican residents in Oakland, introduced the bill based on his experiences with his Grandma’s knowledge of herbs, who taught her family about the medical benefits of entheogens and cannabis. “Half of my family is Native American,” he said. “I grew up with my grandmother, and those plants were visible in our backyard.”  It is a moment in history where the Latino/a community within cannabis needs to reclaim its history, words, and knowledge. As the criminalization of our words erases our history, what lurks behind the surface are predatory corporate forces that are positioned to patent our legacy Indigenous tied knowledge into exotic commodities with Spanish and Indigenous sounding copyrighted names. The Indigenous developed important knowledge on the herb, the Mexican immigrant helped transfer it to the US and the growing Latino/a community central to the labor force and cultural rhythms of the cannabis industry are historically tied with a deeper importance. Our past struggles have meaning. So do the words we use, and how we use them. Let us not forget; Marijuana and everything that it brings us.