Back in the 1990s, when my parents tried to talk to my brother and me about marijuana, the word they used was “dope”—which for us meant either “heroin” or “Hello, I am a clueless baby boomer.” Slang terms for drugs are notoriously hard to pin down: Pity the poor ethno-linguist with her notepad, trailing kids through schoolyards and back alleys to quiz them about the etymology of “crunked.”
These days, though, marijuana language is beginning to come clean. Starting this year, Colorado and Washington state have legalized recreational use; meanwhile, Massachusetts and 19 other states, plus the District of Columbia, now allow the prescription of medical marijuana. As this underground economy goes legit, language is moving along with it, serving as a kind of barometer of the drug’s political fortunes. In 20 years, calling marijuana “weed”—or even, some say, “marijuana”—may sound about as antiquated as asking for a glass of “hooch” after Prohibition.
For many of the drug’s defenders, the word “marijuana” has a pejorative meaning that dates back to the birth of the American antidrug movement. Until the early 20th century, the plant was generally known as “cannabis,” its Latin genus name, or “hemp”; it shows up on early American prescribing records and was dispensed as a cure-all. “Marijuana,” a Mexican Spanish term with obscure roots, began to take over during the prohibition efforts of the 1920s and 1930s, spearheaded by Federal Bureau of Narcotics head Harry J. Anslinger and given popular voice in the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst. Like “reefer,” a slang term associated with African-Americans, “marijuana” was used to gin up racial fears of the drug’s social effects. NPR’s Codeswitch blog recently quoted one 1925 headline from The New York Times: “Mexican, Crazed By Marihuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife.”
Jack Herer’s “The Emperor Wears No Clothes,” a seminal text for the medical marijuana movement first published in 1985, lays out a somewhat sensationalized version of the racist history of prohibition and refers to cannabis as “the plant we denigrate with the slang name marijuana.” Since then, and particularly as legalization battles spread from California in 1996 across the country, “marijuana” has become a shibboleth. “If somebody uses ‘cannabis’ it means he’s more or less pro-normalization, and someone who uses ‘marijuana’ is anti,” Mark A.R. Kleiman, a drug policy expert at UCLA, told me. When Ricardo Baca became The Denver Post’s first-ever “marijuana editor” last fall, he received a flurry of e-mails and Reddit messages begging him to change the title to “cannabis editor” and alter the Post’s style guide accordingly. He and the Post’s copy chief decided not to, because marijuana is still the more common term. But, given activists’ energy, he said, “I do think we’ll see more of the word ‘cannabis’ in the coming years.”
The shift toward “cannabis” has been accompanied by a slow creep of medical language into the lexicon. Dale Gieringer, a researcher and the California state coordinator of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, known as NORML, said that in his social circle, “Let’s get high” has been replaced by a semifacetious “Let’s medicate!” Dispensary names in medical-marijuana states offer a glimpse of the drug’s new quasi-medical, quasi-legal landscape, in which providers’ need to be vague (to avoid federal prosecution) meets the need to promote to a wide-ranging clientele. In Denver, names run the gamut from direct (“Discount Medical Marijuana”) to white-coat-esque (“Medicinal Wellness Center”) to woo-woo (“Greener Pasture Compassion Center”)—each selling an image of marijuana, as well as the product itself.
The main change in marijuana-related slang over the past decade or so, though, has been in the great flowering of strain names, the colorful, self-promotional tags invented by breeders and growers for their varietals of cannabis indica or sativa: Purple Haze, Northern Lights, White Widow, Super Silver Haze, O.G. Kush, Sour Diesel, and so on. The boom in strain naming was related to changes in US law, but not, initially, to legalization: It began when crackdowns on drug importation from South America and the Middle East in the ’70s and ’80s had the unforeseen effect of nurturing a homegrown industry. Domestic strains, at first top-end luxury items, gradually took over more of the national market, so that a kid buying on the street in New York would be just as likely to order by strain name as a medical client in Mendocino County, according to Travis Wendel, an ethnographer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Strain naming is a complex poetry, and sometimes a mysterious one. Some strain names promise certain properties: Cannatonic, for example, is a high-cannabidiol strain that’s often prescribed for medical use. Fruit-related strain names (Strawberry Cough, Blueberry Haze) may advertise “notes” of that fruit, the way a wine is described as having “notes of blackberry,” said Bill Downing, a medical marijuana caregiver and the treasurer of MassCann, Massachusetts’ NORML affiliate. Many advertise their botanical parentage: When Downing’s Cannatonic plant bred with his Grape Ape plant, he christened the result “Ape Tonic.” There are strain names that reference people: Herer himself has had one named after him. Downing knows of at least one Massachusetts-specific strain name: “North River,” after the river in Salem.
The branding of marijuana by strain name recalls what happened with alcohol during Prohibition, according to Daniel Okrent, author of “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.” “In the pre-Prohibition saloon era, people asked for a whiskey,” he said. “Once Prohibition begins, there was so much bad alcohol around, they started to ask by brand name, so that instead of getting something fake, I’m going to get Jim Beam.”
As the alcohol industry regrouped legally after 1933, ordering by brand name became less about avoiding antifreeze and more about signaling one’s superior taste. Similarly, while strain naming may have begun as a way to advertise quality on an unregulated illegal market, as marijuana goes mainstream, strain names are getting the same obsessive attention from connoisseurs as, say, craft beer brands or small-batch bourbon labels. Unlike generic words like “weed,” “pot,” or the tricky “marijuana,” strain names dangle the promise of a personalized, locally grown, thoughtfully crafted—one might even say artisanal—product. And what does America like more, in the first half of the 21st century, than that?Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.