The History of Why the Feds Spell Pot 'Marihuana'

Plant formerly known as cannabis got a new name thanks to Spanish-American War
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 20, 2016 6:25 PM CST
The History of Why the Feds Spell Pot 'Marihuana'
"Grass" works, too.   (Getty Images)

The Washington Post wades through the weeds to get the linguistic scoop on weed—specifically, why an "archaic" spelling of marijuana is still in use. A Federal Register post last week announcing that CBD hemp oil is now considered a Schedule 1 drug offered a new code for "marihuana extract" and spelled it thusly in the dedicated section. But while some pot advocates have mused the alternate spelling may have been employed as a way to dodge web searches on marijuana policy changes, the Post takes a closer look at a spelling "freighted with historical significance." To wit: In the late 19th century, the pot plant was usually just called "cannabis," but things changed after 1898's Spanish-American War, when "American resentment toward Mexicans and Mexican immigrants exploded," per Brookings Institution expert John Hudak.

"Marijuana" and "marihuana" were both used in Mexican Spanish speech at the time, and so US anti-drug officials decided to hijack both spellings to turn people off to smoking pot by "[exploiting] prejudice against despised minority groups, especially Mexican immigrants," medical marijuana activist Martin Lee notes in a 2013 book he wrote on the subject. Maybe by chance, the "h" spelling ended up being the version that landed in the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, as well as in the Controlled Substances Act decades later. So why did the "h" start getting phased out in the '60s? Experts aren't sure, but one theory is that as more Americans caught on to the pronunciation of Spanish words, the "j" became more commonplace. The Post notes that even "marijuana" may be falling out of grace, with drug advocates and researchers pushing to go back to the simple and non-loaded "cannabis." (More marijuana stories.)

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