Pubdate: Thu, 09 Jun 2016
Source: North Coast Journal (Arcata, CA)
Column: The Week in Weed
Copyright: 2016 North Coast Journal
Author: Grant Scott-Goforth


Last year, I watched a room full of white people cheer as a white 
grower told a panel of white lawmakers that the word "marijuana" was racist.

It wasn't the first time I'd heard that particular line of thinking, 
and certainly wasn't the last. It's been repeated by many in the 
industry, from gentle reminders at public meetings to blog posts from 
Oakland-based weed heavyweight the Harborside Health Center. It's 
gaining purchase in government circles.

At the aforementioned meeting - the Gavin Newsom visit to Garberville 
in May of 2015 - Assemblyman Jim Wood addressed the speaker shortly 
after his comments. "We hear you," he told the crowd, assuring them 
he would trade the odious M-word for a safer alternative. He's 
generally making good on that promise; the titles of his recent bills 
shaping the medical marijuana landscape all refer to cannabis.

But another panelist pointed out how the word "marijuana" is woven 
into the tapestry of our culture. Indeed, many upstanding 
organizations - whose monikers rely on "marijuana" - have fought for 
patient access to medical marijuana and common-sense reforms to pot 
laws: NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project, for example. And 
existing laws and governance rely heavily on the word.

Should organizations cling to a racist word simply out of tradition 
or because changing it might lead to confusion? Of course not. See: a 
Certain NFL Team.

It's not a problem that people are being sensitive to perceptions of 
racism. That's a good thing - as long as the movement and the 
outcomes are just. But the word war against marijuana is so 
unnecessary, so misguided and such a waste of effort that it's 
frustrating to behold.

First of all, the word marijuana is not by definition racist. It does 
not refer to a person. It is not a portmanteau of some bygone racist 
terms. What seems to have started this trend is a handful of takes 
looking at the origin of the war on drugs.

As we all know, marijuana can go by a long list of names. As the 
industry budded, the acts of growing, possessing and using marijuana 
grew more specialized. Language's natural inclination to change and 
grow, coupled with the necessity to hide marijuana culture from 
authorities, has yielded a vast bounty of regional nicknames, slang, 
titles and other vernacular oddities. It's pretty cool, honestly, and 
somewhere a graduate student is pitching a thesis advisor to trace 
the twists and turns of pot language.

The leading train of thought against "marijuana" seems to indicate 
the term's common usage - and there's no question it's the most 
common term for weed in the U.S. - has its roots in racist manipulation.

The L.A. Review of Books somewhat hazily summed up that theory:

"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."

That marijuana prohibition was born out of racism - a desire to crack 
down on African-Americans and Latinos during the Jazz Era - is 
well-documented. Prohibition and enforcement of pot and other drugs 
proved to be an effective Civil-Rights-Era tool of control, as 
evidenced by this revelation from a Nixon administration official 
recounted in 1990s but not reproduced until recently: "We knew we 
couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but 
by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and 
blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could 
disrupt those communities."

And the continuing racism of prohibition is evidenced in copious 
reporting from the last decade, during which vast tracts of data were 
able to unequivocally show that people of color - who use drugs at 
the same rates as white people - are systematically punished for drug 
crimes at far higher rates.

These are very real problems that decimate communities, and talking 
about them - and shouting about them to our lawmakers - should never 
be seen as a fad, a PC-trend, an empty gesture. But for the most 
part, in my several years of North Coast marijuana reporting, 
systemic racism in the drug industry and enforcement worlds is not 
what people are shouting about. Which makes the "marijuana is racist" 
cry that much worse.

It's easy to imagine that during the Reefer Madness days, authorities 
sought to turn the general public against pot by giving it a foreign 
sounding name. Those kinds of campaigns still exist, unfortunately, 
but they prey on the racism of the populace. "Marijuana" - which 
directly translates to a common name, Mary Jane - is not a racist 
term, it's a word that played on the racist and xenophobic 
undercurrents of that era's public zeitgeist.

So, I've wondered for some time, what makes a bunch of farmers so 
focused on the injustice of that word? Is saying "marijuana is 
racist" just an easy way to feel good about oneself in an unjust 
world? Maybe. It's more difficult for people to stand up and say 
people convicted of drug felonies shouldn't be barred from the 
medical marijuana industry. That would be a far more effective act, 
but it's also far more politically odious, and requires a lot more 
courage. (For the record, I have seen people call for more meaningful 
action - it's rarer, but it's out there, and they should be applauded).

I think there's a more insidious notion behind "marijuana is racist." 
I think it's motivated by desire to whitewash weed. It's not an 
effort to confront racist laws and practices that continue to levy 
outsized punishments on this country's minorities; it's a desire to 
make marijuana sound safe again. It's playing directly into the very 
same racist undercurrents that continue to flourish under prohibition today.

Marijuana is still a hard sell - for all the talk about shifting 
perceptions, nearly half of California thinks marijuana should still 
be illegal. If marijuana advocates can rebrand it, can get the 
industry, the media, the lawmakers and the public to stop saying that 
scary, Spanish-sounding word, they'll have a much easier time 
convincing the public to go for legalization, to have recreational 
pot shops on bustling downtown street corners.

This all may sound cynical, but why else would a small farmer in 
Garberville care? The marijuana industry in California, Colorado and 
Washington has largely benefitted from the white privilege that 
allows it to avoid detection, prosecution and imprisonment and gives 
its ranks' ability to stand up and shout anything about marijuana to 
a panel of lawmakers.

So, please, white people, focus your energy on more meaningful ways 
to open the industry to people of color and women. Really think about 
why you've taken up a cause, what its long-term impacts may be.

Fight racism. Take back "marijuana."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom