Is the word “marijuana” racist?

The cannabis lexicon is growing as fast as the industry itself, and journalists are struggling to keep pace

Topics: LA Review of Books, Medical Marijuana, pot dispensaries, Pot Legalization, Language, ,

Is the word "marijuana" racist? (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

Angeles Review of Books


I now have absolute proof that smoking even one marijuana cigarette is equal in brain damage to being on Bikini Island during an H-bomb blast.

— Ronald Reagan

IT’S BEEN A LONG JOURNEY from the reefer madness of the 1930s and the War on Drugs of the 1980s to the medical marijuana dispensaries of today. As with any changing social norms, reclaiming words or destroying terms with negative connotations has been essential for rights advocates. As Greg Campbell notes in Pot Inc., which centers on his efforts to grow marijuana in his suburban Colorado basement, the pot lexicon, too, is undergoing a transformation:

A certain faction considers marijuana itself pejorative and racist, based on a longstanding theory that narcotics agents in the 1930s chose that word over the more scientific cannabis when crafting drug laws; the word is of Mexican-Spanish origin and thus, the belief is, sounded more exotic and sinister. For others, cannabis is too pretentious to take seriously […] The act of actually inhaling is also a linguistic minefield. In the modern world of medical marijuana, to talk of “getting stoned” is an immediate giveaway […] Patients medicate, even if the need to do so is no more pressing than that South Park comes on in fifteen minutes.

Given all of the legal and linguistic debate, and the fact that drugs and their subcultures can seem inherently interesting (even sexy?), it’s not surprising that there’s a crop of writers who are eager to report on those who grow it, smoke it, or seek to regulate it. With so much at stake — medically, financially, even recreationally — more books about the marijuana industry are highlighting the importance of changing how we talk about it. Journalist Emily Brady’s is the latest. In Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier, Brady focuses on part of the “Emerald Triangle” region of Northern California, where pot growers are plentiful and federal legalities are overlooked. Humboldt County is widely known as the California capital of marijuana farming, and the local economy, Brady tells us, depends upon it. Following four local characters during the 2010 vote on Proposition 19, which sought to fully legalize marijuana in California, Brady discovers that many of the local farmers voted against it; they wanted to keep cannabis illegal, fearing competition from the pharmaceutical companies.

While Campbell immerses himself in the culture of marijuana, Brady keeps out of her reporting, even though she was born and raised in Northern California. The author’s note in the opening pages carefully explains the work is narrative nonfiction and that “[narrated] passages expressing a person’s thoughts or feelings have been fact-checked.” Brady writes in a novelist’s idiom, almost as an omniscient narrator, without interpolating herself into the text. She keeps herself out of the story, and, it seems, out of the marijuana industry; at the book’s close, she writes that she made the deliberate choice not to work in the area’s main industry, but rather in a local jazz club. She does not set up her own marijuana farm, as Campbell does, or even intrude on the action very much at all, but keeps her focus on the residents themselves. The events unravel through the reminiscences of four Humboldt inhabitants, each representing a different segment of the community: an elderly, back-to-the-land marijuana grower; a young out-of-towner looking to make money for the growing season; the daughter of a pot grower who dislikes growing up in a black market economy; and the local sheriff.

There’s a ponderous quality to Brady’s prose that captures the slow-paced, stoned quality of life in Humboldt. She also has a knack for describing bizarre, interesting details, which bring the community she’s describing to life. “She had long brown hair and was dressed in the kind of clothes you throw on when you’re awoken by a phone call with bad news,” Brady notes of one minor character. She writes that Mare, an old-school “marijuana moonshiner” once smuggled a strain of pot called “Bubble Gum” from Amsterdam to California in what she calls her “orifice,” and that a sign at the local motel boasts wireless “enternet.” She notes that, not only does the local radio station have an astrology-themed cosmic weather report, but also broadcasts the location of cop cars and helicopters during marijuana harvest times to alert farmers of their presence. She also records outstanding examples of marijuana argot, like the “couch lock” marijuana users can experience from a particularly strong strain of sativa, or the names of various types of marijuana crops like “Sour Diesel” and “God’s Pussy.”

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The inspiration behind these colorful names is explored in meticulous yet vivid descriptions. Brady reports on various parts of the marijuana farming process: from the differences between pot grown indoors and out, to why only female plants are used, to the anatomy of the plants themselves and which parts are finally smoked, to the importance of seedless (sinsemilla) plants, to where the psychotropic part of the plant resides (in its trichomes, the crystalline resin on the plant’s surface). She describes how to trim a plant, the advantages of cloning a plant versus encouraging diversity, and a whole host of information on fertilizers, mold, the differences betweensativa and indica plants, and the importance of sunshine.

Brady reveals a culture born of pioneers, fed by the gold rush that came into its own during the “red gold rush” of Redwood logging. With the “Green Rush” of cannabis farmers roughly a century later, Humboldt has become no less dependent on one (shady) cash crop. Brady offers a compelling, detailed look at the life of this highly idiosyncratic and necessarily secretive community.

Where Brady focuses on the lives of four Humboldt County residents and their local economy, Doug Fine’s Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution looks at the legalization debate in terms of the national economy. According to Fine, $8.1 billion worth of marijuana is being produced in Mendocino County, adjacent to Humboldt, and also part of the so-called Emerald Triangle. He argues that it would be better to stop spending taxpayer dollars on the War on Drugs and start collecting revenues — helping medical marijuana patients in the process. His strategy is a simple, though ingenious one: “follow the money.”

Like Brady, Fine also lives in the marijuana-farming community he covers: Mendocino, which had its own local marijuana regulation law at the time Fine was writing. Chapter 9.31 of Title 9 of the Mendocino County Code allowed for the growth of 99 cannabis plants per land parcel for the use of medical marijuana patients. Each plant, writes Fine, required a plastic zip-tie from the Sheriff’s department to identify it as part of the registered program. He explains that the tags cost $50, on top of a $1,005 registration fee and $2,500 inspection fee. That’s $8,500 for a harvest that sold for approximately $1 million. In a postscript Fine tells us that the 9.31 program was abandoned after a nasty memo from the U.S. Attorney’s office, which “directly threatened the Mendocino County government with lawsuits and individual officials with racketeering charges if local legislators didn’t kill the Zip-Tie program immediately.”

Unlike Brady, Fine is part of his action. This is a first-person narrative, and he literally gets the stuff all over his hands, his computer, and his phone. “To this day my keyboard would knock an airport-sniffing dog unconscious,” he jokes. Although Fine is careful not to record any personal run-ins with smoking, one emerges with certain suspicions; a former goat herder, Fine lives on a ranch called “Funkey Butte,” and fuels his truck with vegetable oil. He doesn’t name any recreational users, for that matter — a point we might credit to the focus of his argument. He may even go overboard with references to the “medicine” and the “patients” who will be using the marijuana he’s seen, with references to recreational use elided: “Each [plant] had a potential value of tens of thousands of dollars and could reach dozens of patients.” He tracks one plant from growth to its end users, AARP members and Sonoma County residents Diane Fortier, who suffers from arthritis, and Bill Harney, who has lost his appetite due to his cancer chemotherapy. The marijuana, Fine tells us, not only helps with Fortier’s pain but also gives Harney the munchies so that he can eat again. Again and again, he combats the stereotypical image of pot users as good-for-nothing stoners.

Fine, like Campbell, believes that changing the debate about marijuana involves updating its lexicon: for him, pot becomes medicine, farmers become “ganjapreneurs.” Fine argues that it would be better to call medical marijuana dispensary products names like “Redwood Serenity” and “Heavenly Recovery” instead of off-putting, non-medical nomenclature like “Satan’s Pussy.” His ultimate point is that prohibition doesn’t work, and that, while the demand for marijuana will not radically change, the source can: whether marijuana is taxed and regulated, and whether it is sold by farmers or criminals is a matter of policy. And policies can be changed.

Mark Haskell Smith is forthcoming about spending a lot of time smoking pot in his recent first-person narrative. Heart of Dankness: Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers, and the Race for the Cannabis Cup opens with Smith’s attendance at the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, and quickly cuts to his acquisition of a medical marijuana card from a gynecologist (yes) in Los Angeles. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that his 2010 novel, Baked,followed the fortunes and misfortunes of an Angeleno pot grower at the very same Cannabis Cup.

Smith doesn’t stay in one place, but instead travels to Berkeley to visit a marijuana collective before heading off to Toronto for a cannabis seed company expo. Then it’s off to Oaksterdam University for a quick primer in marijuana law and Civics 101, and then back to Amsterdam. In true stoner fashion, there’s a delightful three-page digression on broodjes, or Dutch cheese sandwiches, and a reminiscence on his first Pabst Blue Ribbon — his “gateway drug” to wine coolers, Canadian whisky, backyard punch, mushrooms, ecstasy, martinis, cocaine, pot, and Sauvignon blanc.

While Brady follows one particular community, and Fine one particular plant, Smith is interested in just one word: “dank.” Or rather, he embarks on a single-minded quest for the “dankest” strain of marijuana. For Smith, dank is an elusive quality (and there are strains of it, too: “dank,” “above dank,” “diggity dank,” “super dank,” “Holy-grail dank”). But he comes to realize that even the very best pot-smoking experiences, with the dankest weed, require “a strong situational component.” Where you inhale, and with whom, matters a lot.

For Smith, too, the language of weed is important, but for different reasons. Smith is searching for a vocabulary of marijuana in the same way that oenophiles reach for a vocabulary of wine. It isn’t a crucial issue behind reform, but it is a useful one for the connoisseur. According to Smith, the slang dictionary of the University of Oregon’s Linguistics department credits snowboarders for originally coining “dank,” which apparently refers to strands with “a very strong smell,” where the pot itself is usually “very tasty and potent.” To give us some idea of the game, Smith quotes one marijuana aficionado on “Sleestak” pot: “It’s mostly sativa with an old-school flavor, kinda hazy on the exhale, great room smell, great uppity high.” When sampling the candidates for the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, Smith compares the experience to “tasting a flight of wines” — although the resulting euphoria he describes can sound more like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas than a lazy weekend in Napa. Take the names of marijuana strains themselves: “Green Crack,” “Trainwreck,” “Super Silver Haze,” “White Widow,” “Hawaiian Snow,” “Maui Wowee,” and “Purple Kush.” Smith notes that those in the business of making medical marijuana respectable dislike such terms for what they see as proper medicine (they are as careful with their words as Fine is in Too High to Fail). As one Berkeley dispensary operator puts it to Smith, “Can you imagine a patient who might be new to cannabis, maybe a little nervous about it, coming in here and buying Green Crack?” Within the dispensary, Smith notes, there are no customers, only patients or members, and “no one got high; they ‘medicated.’” He writes, “It struck me as a little odd, this kind of rigorous relabeling, but I understand what they’re trying to do. They are making a determined effort to change the language.” But on occasion, perhaps, the experience outpaces the laws of the land: smoking “Silver Bubble” “wasn’t dank,” writes Smith. “It was like being abducted.”

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