A bud by any other name would smell as sweet, but why do we call it cannabis? It’s a tangled political history. Tight as a rope of hemp. If you ever want to know why something has the name it has, you should use an etymology dictionary.
Why We Call It Cannabis
We called it cannabis for two centuries until we stopped. The plant got its Latin genus name in 1728. But the Latin name comes from the Greek word kannabis, which means hemp. And that Greek word actually came from the Scythian language.
The Scythians were a group of societies living east of classical Greece. The historian and anthropologist Herodotus wrote about the Scythians. He described their warrior culture and savage ways. More importantly, he said they smoked cannabis. They threw hemp seeds on red hot coals and hot-boxed their felt tents. And that was how they got clean. You can read more about this in The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter.
If you said cannabis from 1728 on, people would know what you meant. You referred to hemp fibers that made rope, canvas, and other useful things. Then after 1848, you could say cannabis to refer to an intoxicating plant.
That same year Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto. That’s probably a coincidence. But it’s interesting that the etymology dictionary places this shift in meaning at the same time as the greatest political upheavals in Europe.
Why We Stopped
People in the western world used the scientific name from then on until another revolution. The first revolution of the 20th century. The Mexican Revolution which began in 1910.
With war come refugees. Mexican peasants fled north into the States. They took cannabis with them. But they didn’t call it cannabis; they called it marijuana. In 1914, the wave of anti-marijuana legislation kicked in. It started in the border towns. The push for a federal ban on marijuana started in the 1930s. Banning and controlling marijuana made it easier to control migrant populations, already subject to racist bigotry.
So we called it marijuana to scare ourselves into oppressing immigrant workers fleeing political upheaval and banning a useful plant. We call it cannabis again now to gain a new legitimacy. Rather than a long foreign word spoken by the good people of Mexico, we need a word that traveled from a dead language through the Germanic and Romantic languages to feel more comfortable.
But don’t worry about this too much. Pot, grass, weed, herb, bud, dope, doob, call it whatever you want. Worry more about the political howlers below.
Political Faux-Pas: Comparing Legalization to Gay Marriage
Back around 2014 and 2015, commentators said that ending weed prohibition would come after a general change in popular opinion, just as politicians changed their tune on same-sex marriage after the voters did. Or they said the legalization of gay marriage was the gateway for the legalization of pot. Or they said legalization would pressure the GOP the same way gay marriage had.
In the superficial sense of the American political game, these two causes have things in common. But ending prohibition should not ride on coattails of gay marriage. If these causes are moving through the system in a similar way, the system still treats different humans differently. At any rate, they aren’t really moving through the system in the same way. Victories for gay marriage are in the courts; victories for legal weed will be in legislation.
Same-sex marriage has been more polarizing in the States, especially along partisan lines. Same-sex marriage has been an easier question to answer if we value red-blooded American freedom and equality. The equality of letting LGBT couples build their lives together with the same financial boons given to straight married couples is clearly a good thing. The freedom to hit a blunt or rip a bong may be an obvious good, but it’s not a constitutional right, not yet at least. More people are convinced that cannabis is not as dangerous as the law suggests it is. But cannabis is not harmless in their eyes.
And of course, there is the state versus federal government issue. The feds come out on top when it comes to state drug laws. It was a different story for gay marriage. If gay marriage was illegal in your state, you could marry your partner in a legal state, and your home state could be forced to recognize it. You could do that with the “full faith and credit” clause under Article IV of the Constitution. But if you were nabbed in Oregon for having legit medical weed from California, you wouldn’t have such recourse. Both states have medical laws, but in this case, they have separate law enforcement.
Political Faux Pas: Weed and Racial Ignorance
I didn’t talk about the 14th amendment in the last section. It provides “equal protection of the law” for citizens. But of course, the feds crack down on some people while letting others slide by. Notice that the states where weed is still fully illegal are often the states with high black populations.
Cannabis has been legalized in Oregon, a state where black people were not permitted to live until 1926. So, when legalization is celebrated for allowing white suburbians to toke in peace, or creating an unbridled cannabis industry, we should re-think our priorities. Especially if black and brown minors are still in the sights of police. And if non-violent offenders don’t receive reparations as victims of the drug war.
Personal Faux-Pas: Sesh Etiquette
Let’s talk about value. Cannabis, of course, has a price. But it also has a special quality that you would only associate with pricelessness. Imagine the Scythians when they first discovered cannabis, before it became the center of their rituals. Before it was fixed into their culture. That may have been the moment when the truth of cannabis was made plain.
A modern example. Say you’re at a party and some acquaintances duck away to a bedroom or fire escape for a smoke session. After things get going, someone else pops in and asks for just a hit or two. You might feel honor-bound to smoke out this new friend.
Because you live in a big city, and weed is abundant. You might reasonably expect this latecomer to smoke you back in the future. The motto “Don’t be mean, share your green” has the corollary “When you’re dry, don’t be shy.” But would you ask this person then and there to get you back? Too anti-social.
Like we said, cannabis has a price. But if your money hasn’t been right for ages, and you have some good friends, you can still have weed. The more I treat cannabis as if it were free, the more joy I derive from it.
Granted, this is all ideal. The party smoke circle is a potential minefield of bad manners. Could there be an undercover narc in your midst? Do you know each other that well? Anyone Bogarting? Is anyone getting passed over by mistake? Have you ever passed on a number without using it yourself?
You must feel out the context and everybody’s different expectations. It’s a dance. So it fits that the origin of “faux-pas” is from the French word for a bad dance step. A bad pass.