Part 2 of NJ Cannabis Media’s special report on stigma and the cannabis industry.
How important are words in fighting stigma surrounding an industry that is based on a plant?
Consider the changes made to New Jersey Bills S2703 and S10.
The word marijuana has been replaced in the bills by cannabis, which is the name of the plant. So the two bills are now the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act and the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Cannabis Act. In previous drafts, they were the New Jersey Marijuana Legalization Act and the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act.
Part 1: How stigma affects everything in the cannabis industry
There’s a reason for that. What you call it has different implications.
“Are you calling it cannabis? Are you calling it marijuana? Are you calling it weed? Are you calling it pot? You calling it dope?” asks Stu Zakim, a veteran communications specialist.
The marijuana vs. cannabis debate needs historical perspective.
The word marijuana, sometimes spelled marihuana, has Mexican-Spanish roots. The name was used in the early part of the 20th century by “racist politicians who first criminalized cannabis because they wanted to underscore that it was a Latino, particularly Mexican, vice,” according to the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators.
“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind,” said Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Bureau of Narcotics, in testimony before the U.S. Congress. “Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage.”
That led to the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which was the first federal law to criminalize marijuana nationwide. The act imposed an excise tax on the sale, possession or transfer of all hemp products, effectively criminalizing all but industrial uses of the plant.
The next major milestone in the battle against marijuana came during the Nixon Administration.
As part of the “War on Drugs,” The Controlled Substances Act of 1970, signed into law by President Richard Nixon, repealed the Marijuana Tax Act and listed marijuana as a Schedule I drug—along with heroin, LSD and ecstasy — with no medical uses and a high potential for abuse.
Dan Baum wrote about a 1994 interview with Nixon’s domestic policy advisor John Ehrlichman in a 2016 article in Harper’s Magazine:
“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? 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. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
That’s why it’s vital the messaging changes, according to Zakim.
“Don’t you think we have a responsibility as educators that you get some kind of consistency so we can eradicate the stigma that people don’t see it as marijuana which by nature is a racist term? But instead as cannabis, which is the plant that it comes from and then we’re talking about a plant-based business.”
For Dianna Houenou, policy counsel, ACLU New Jersey, the changing in messaging is critical because “a lot of it has to do with a long-standing fight of having to undo decades of successful messaging of the War on Drugs and the stigma we have assigned to the people who have been entangled in the criminal justice system.”