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Why you shouldn't use the term "cannabis" to avoid the term "marijuana"

Updated: Nov 28, 2021

The dark history surrounding the damnation of marijuana and using racist agendas to do so is indeed a stain on U.S. history. However, currently there is no agreed upon term which applies to all non-hemp type Cannabis plants. Really, to me the easiest way to deal with this issue is to legalize the plant, de-schedule THC, and categorize plants based on intended use.

The term “marijuana” is widely used in common, legal, scientific, and medical vernacular, but has been deemed taboo by some as it carries with it racial and drug-use connotations. Some prefer to use the term “cannabis” which is not acceptable and is rather confusing since hemp is also Cannabis. Some prefer to use “drug-type”, which offers a two-fold problem: (1) the term drug” comes with negative connotations and (2) infers that hemp-type plants have no medicinal potential or application, which is not true. A third suggestion is “non-hemp type Cannabis” which is all-encompassing and uses the definition of hemp to distinguish those plants that are do not meet the requirements for hemp but is cumbersome and probably won’t be easily worked into common use.

Hemp includes plants which have been bred and selected for traits such as oil, seed, or fiber production and other industrial uses as well as medical applications of phytochemicals other than tetrahydrocannabinols. Hemp encompasses all Cannabis plants under a defined legal threshold of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which varies among countries, but generally <1.0% of total THC concentration by dry weight. However, potency thresholds do not match biological parameters that delineate hemp from non-hemp, but this is the system currently used for many policies surrounding cultivation of hemp.

So Cannabis which is hemp is pretty clearly defined. What about all the other plants that fall on the other side of the magic hemp threshold? It it Cannabis? Yes, but hemp is also Cannabis. This is confusing, especially for people just entering the industry or consumers navigating the market. Cannabis, capitalized and in italics, is the plant genus and encompasses all types within the species. The term cannabis, no capitalization or italics, could be used as the term for non-hemp type Cannabis, but given that most people do not have taxonomic training on how to correctly write a specific epithet, and that the term is verbalized identically, using the same term for two conceptually different identities is not ideal (see C. sativa/C. indica, sativa/indica/hybrid morphology, and Sativa/Indica/Hybrid effects).

What's wrong with using the term "marijuana"? Time for a history lesson. In the late1920's, as alcohol prohibition was winding down, Henry Anslinger, the assistant commissioner in the United States' Treasury Department's Bureau of Prohibition, found himself looking for a new job. He was appointed the founding commissioner of the Treasury's Bureau of Narcotics. Together with newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst and petrochemical giant Lamot DuPonte, Anslinger, the most successful smear campaign in history was funded and disseminated to the public nationwide . Fueled with fear and racism, they convinced white people that Mexican and Black people were violent and murderous from smoking marijuana, and convinced white God-fearing folk that if they smoked marijuana, they too would succumb to violence and sexual debauchery.

Laws were established to abolish Cannabis, including hemp which coincidentally and conveniently for Hearst and DuPonte, wiped out the major competitor of the timber/paper and petrochemical industries. What many people didn't realize at the time was that a common elixir, "Cannabis Indica", found in almost every home in the U.S. was made from the same plant they had agreed to eradicate.

Type I-V: data driven categories

There has also been the suggestion that we use Type I-V. Modern genotype and chemotype analysis on three major cannabinoids (tetrahydrocannabinolic, cannabidiolic and cannabigerolic acids) has shown there are five distinct and separate categories of Cannabis plant types. However, this approach would need plants to be scientifically assessed in order to correctly categorize them, which probably isn't logistically feasible, but is nonetheless an interesting approach to the problem.

So what term should we use for non-hemp type Cannabis? For now, I tend to read the audience and try to use the least offensive term. Perhaps "sticky-icky" could be widely embraced.

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