Throughout history, cannabis has gone by many names depending on era, social circle or ethnic background. Although the scientific name for the plant is, in fact, cannabis, popular culture has given the plant a variety of slang names. Whether you refer to the plant as weed, cannabis, or marijuana, they all mean the same thing in common conversation. However, the etymology, or root origin of the words, have drastically different undertones. If you’ve recently been introduced to the world of cannabis, it’s easy to understand why you may be unaware of these differences.
The main differences between these words are cultural, so let’s take a look at them individually.
The technical name for the plant and the name that’s been used for it in scientific and medical journals is cannabis sativa.Today, the word cannabis is used to formalize the drug and make the use of cannabis-derived products (as well as cannabis itself) more acceptable in society. The term “cannabis” lacks the negative connotations associated with the slang or “street” phrases used to identify the plant as a recreational substance.
When cannabis became popular in the United States nearly 100 years ago, there were some high-powered individuals with a vested interest in discouraging the use and production of hemp products in general. Prior to 1937, when the drug was officially outlawed, cannabis was widely used as both a recreational drug and a medicinal substance.
The smear campaigns that began, which many in the industry refer to as “Reefer Madness,” had substantial racial undertones. Its overall popularity, paired with its use in Black and Brown circles, fostered a sense of fear and paranoia in the primarily white government, which was mostly ignorant to the plant, cultural differences and its reason for use by minority groups. A propaganda campaign about its “nightmare-inducing,” dangerous effects began and led to the widespread criminalization of the plant, which is still impacting us today. During the time of Reefer Madness, the plant was primarily referred to as marijuana or marihuana, a Mexican term, which was purposely selected to position it as a foreign substance associated with “undesirable” populations.
“Weed” is a very common slang term for cannabis. Though it’s not clearly understood where the term weed originated, it wasn’t until the early 2000’s that we saw the rise of the word weed. This term is most commonly used by Millennials who grew up hearing their parents refer to cannabis with common hippie terms like “grass” and “flower”.
Fun fact: What do you call weed that’s dry and flavorless? You might hear the word “bunk weed” or back in the day you may have heard “dirt weed,” says Flore Dispensary founder, Terrance Alan.
So What’s the Correct Word?
The short answer is this: all of the slang and scientific phrases are correct and interchangeable. However, it’s important to be conscious of the cultural significance of the word marijuana. So, when referencing the plant, take note of your audience and use the term best suited for the context of the conversation.
Terrance Alan has over 25 years in government advocacy creating both the San Francisco entertainment commission and the cannabis taskforce. He is co-president of the Castro merchant’s and co-chair of CMAC and C2K, both working on cannabis consumption. He designed, constructed and opened a boutique dispensary in the Castro District of San Francisco called Flore dispensary featuring carefully curated cannabis selections with an emphasis on small Humboldt far grown cannabis, social justice brands, equity brands, women owned brands and operates a compassion distribution program with Sweetleaf Joe.