Words, words, words

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To the general public, the changes in cannabis culture are still novel and the associated language can seem like no big deal. But those within the cannabis world are privy to the connotations of existing lexicons and are a part of creating a new language.

Consider the word “marijuana” defined by American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) as “a preparation made from the dried flower clusters and leaves of the cannabis plant, usually smoked or eaten to induce euphoria.”

The word has staying power because it is practical and necessary. The term is also used in policy, law and has thus found its place in popular culture, too, but the utility of the word is not the reason it came into such broad use. 

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word back to the spanish word “marihuana” likely stemming from the Nahuatl “mallihuan,” meaning prisoner. Its rise in use came at the turn of the 20th century when Mexicans immigrated to California in masses, fleeing the Mexican Revolution, bringing marijuana with them. It wasn’t that California didn’t have cannabis, but rather that Californians at the time were used to getting it in a processed form from pharmacists.

The word was relatively uncommon until it was popularized by Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics who sought to criminalize cannabis. While the motives behind his campaign against cannabis are up for debate, it’s generally agreed upon that Anslinger’s use of the word “marijuana” was strategic. At the time, in the early 1930s, the majority of Americans were opposed to immigration and criminalizing cannabis with a Mexican word successfully played to those racist attitudes.

For that reason, many working in and around legalized cannabis markets avoid using the word “marijuana” with a strong preference for “cannabis,” the scientific name of the plant. Less fraught with politics and history, the word lends a sense of neutrality.

Neutrality may be boring, but at least it’s honest. After nearly 70 years of prohibition and the war on drugs, there is something liberating about calling a thing by its name.

It is in the same pursuit of honesty that frames a second category of words: descriptors of the experience of cannabis and of the altered state of mind it can produce.

Getting stoned, high, baked — the list of words to describe the experience is long and varied. While they may seem harmless, people most involved in legalized cannabis increasingly associate them with the era of prohibition when cannabis was sold on black markets.

Not only was there political pressure to demonize the drug, but there was motivation to disguise use through more ambiguous terminology. To speak honestly about cannabis was dangerous.

Those in and close to the legal market are peering at what may very well be the beginning of the end of prohibition. Federal legalization is attractive to industry insiders, social justice advocates and many consumers. For all of these groups, it is important to change the way that cannabis is perceived. Like any other product in a capitalist culture it needs to be rebranded. 

Last May, I talked to David Schmader, a long time columnist with The Stranger in Seattle and author of a book on cannabis culture, who warned that “stereotypes are reductive at best and diabolical at worst.”

“It’s like being the spectator of an experience versus describing your own,” he said. “The words we use are meant to vilify weed, not to describe the pleasures of weed … I find it to be such a great pleasure. I just don’t want people to believe lies about weed.”

Lately, whenever I imbibe cannabis, I have been paying particular attention to how I feel. My instinct is to describe the sensations as being stoned, paranoid or high but what I really mean to say is something else entirely.

What happens in that altered state of mind is that I recognize how tired I feel from working three jobs, a thought I can’t really afford to have most of the time.

By paranoid I mean to acknowledge that I feel anxious about meeting expectations — mine or someone else’s, I’m not sure. Either way, I am nervous that somehow I shouldn’t consume cannabis, that it is a distraction from the more productive life I ought to be pursuing.

But with cannabis in my body, I am loudly confronted with the sensory world. Instead of worried, I find myself delighted with the sunshine streaming through fall trees and the sound of flocks of birds surfing the wind and the opportunity to experience and describe the world I live in all over again. This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.

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