There are many terms in use for the plants in the cannabis genus. Marijuana, ganja, weed, and hemp are some of the more familiar synonyms. Some of the nomenclature reflects a quality about the cannabis. For instance hemp is often used to signify cannabis of an industrial variety, while sensimilla describes female cannabis plants that have been prevented from breeding. Otherwise it’s mostly local slang. In common usage, whichever terminology suits the speaker’s purpose is totally acceptable. However, doctors, scientists, government officials should be precise and proper. Making conscious decisions about the language we use is more than just an exercise in pretension, it has important implications for history, the present, and the future of cannabis medicine.
First and foremost, the reason we use the term cannabis is because that is, and has been, the accepted scientific name of the plant since the classical Greeks were introduced to the plant by the ancient Scythians. Since our mission at CITIVA is to provide the public with safe, effective, and dependable medicines we want our language to reflect the seriousness of our commitment to our customers. Most patients and doctors would probably prefer if the healthcare industry avoids the use of slang
The use of slang has also been used to marginalize and demonize cannabis, often with racist undertones. Cannabis was a widely used plant, for both industrial and medicinal purposes, in the United States from the colonial era to the 1930’s. In fact, cannabis was the active ingredient in a variety of patent medicines available in pharmacies across the country. Doctors and patients would have probably recognized the substance as cannabis or “indian hemp”.
Despite the fact that the plant already had a familiar scientific name that was internationally recognized, in the 1930’s the US government began referring to cannabis in official reports using an obscure northern Mexican slang term favored by migrant workers “marijuana”. In propaganda, cannabis was “reefer” a term tied to African American jazz musicians. This change in nomenclature coincided with a concerted effort by federal law enforcement agencies and private interests to ban the plant.
By exploiting racial animus, prohibitionists tied cannabis to ethnic minorities and sensational crimes in order to turn popular opinion against a plant that many were using for medical benefit. They went so far as to rename a familiar plant with obscure slang. It may seem absurd but the tactic was wildly successful and we continue to fight federal prohibition to this day.
Words have meaning besides simple identification. They evoke images and inspire emotion. In medicine we must not only be specific, though specificity is crucial, we must be comforting and inclusive. Always seeking to elevate our field.