Monday, February 8, 2016

What's in a Name? That Which We Call Marijuana by Any Other Name Would Still Engender Opposition (... but maybe we should still doff thy name?)

The title of this post is my effort to channel the Bard of Avon and to still reflect the substance of this notable new commentary by Keith Stroup, Legal Counsel for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.   This commentary is titled "Marijuana, Cannabis, Ganja, Weed, Grass, Pot, Reefer, or Maryjane: What’s In a Name?," and here is how it starts and ends:

I am periodically amused when we receive an email or phone call at NORML from an enthusiastic, usually young, supporter, advising us he/she has found the missing link to marijuana legalization: come up with a new name for our favorite herb.  That’s right.  Some who are new to the issue, when they first discover the racist under-pinning’s of both marijuana prohibition, and the word “marijuana” itself, naively think if we could just stop using the word “marijuana,” and instead use “cannabis” or some other synonym, our opposition would suddenly disappear, and we would have a clear path to legalization.

I wish it were that simple.  But it is not the name we use that makes it difficult to legalize marijuana; it is the misinformation left from decades of government anti-marijuana propaganda.  We are having to re-educate millions of Americans about marijuana, including especially those in the media and our elected officials....

Those who oppose marijuana legalization, and support prohibition, either have an exaggerated view of the potential dangers from marijuana smoking; or they have decided to oppose legalization for political reasons (e.g., they still identify marijuana smoking with radical, lefty politics).  In either case, using another word in place of marijuana will have absolutely no impact.  Those who ignore the science, and believe that marijuana is “the devil’s weed,” will not assume a more rational position, regardless of what we call it.  And those who consider marijuana smoking to be anti-establishment behavior will continue to think of marijuana smokers as cultural rebels, even if we call ourselves “cannabis users.”  The name is inconsequential....

Because of the government’s “reefer madness” campaign of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, most older Americans were effectively “brain-washed” (another term from the 50s) into believing that marijuana was dangerous and evil, and would lead to depravity.  Thus it is no surprise that when NORML was founded in late 1970, only 12% of the public favored legalizing the drug.  It was only by advancing a more rational understanding of marijuana and marijuana smokers over several decades that we eventually began to see higher levels of support for legalization, bringing us to where we are today, with 58% of the country nationwide now favoring an end to prohibition and the establishment of a legally regulated market. 

We are finally winning this long struggle, not because we came up with a new term for marijuana; but because we took the time and made the effort to re-educate Americans about the relative safety of marijuana, as well as the important medical uses of the drug.  We have finally won the hearts and minds of a majority of the country, who now understand that marijuana prohibition causes far more problems than the use of the drug itself, regardless of what name one prefers to use for marijuana.

Personally, though I agree with Keith Stroup's assertion that changing the primary word used to describe marijuana would not magically make opposition to legal reforms suddenly disappear, I disagree with the suggestion in the commentary that the semantics here are entirely inconsequential. Indeed, if we look at the history of alcohol regulations and other drug prohibition regimes, seemingly minor semantics can sometimes make a big difference with respect to public perception. In lots of past and present alcohol regulations, significant distinctions have been between so-called "hard liquor" and beer and wine. Similarly, federal criminal prohibitions still treat so-called "crack" much more harshly than cocaine, even though they are the exact same chemical substance.

More to the point here, I think one enduring problem with the terminology in the marijuana reform space is the tendency for lots of vague words to mean lots of different things in different settings. So many terms often used widely in the marijuana reform space (including on this blog) — even very basic terms such as "legalization," "recreational use," "medical marijuana," "decriminalization," "serious medical condition," "low THC," "edibles," "drugged driving," "public consumption" — can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For example, in a recent on-line discussion about the potential social benefits of marijuana, a smart person reasonably asserted that the use of CBD oils to help people (especially kids) with severe seizure disorders should be considered the use of marijuana because CBD oil "is a substance in pot, not pot."

In other words, though I share Keith Stroup's view that reformed semantic alone will not radically change the basic elements of the political and social debate over marijuana, I also think "what is in a name" can often prove quite important for the development of effective legal and social reform movements. Consequently, I think advocates (on both sides of these debates) ought not ignore completely how an array of marijuana products and activities get described and may get "branded" in the months and years ahead.

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I like this back and forth about what's in a name. I have to say - I don't know. When I started Life for Pot the name was a big issue. I thought about it and asked many people advocating for sentencing reform if they thought the word pot was offensive. No one told me that it was, but then they wouldn't. I was really trying to draw attention to the fact that nonviolent marijuana offenders could receive sentences of life without parole. Everyone did think that the phrase aptly described the cause in a short concise phrase.

Well, much to my surprise, after the site was launched the commentary began. It was not politically correct to many in the marijuana legalization community. They did not agree however on what would be acceptable. There was a lively discussion between those who thought I should call it marijuana and those who thought it should be called cannabis. What could I do - nothing, I had launched it and started the brand. At that point many years ago, if you googled life for pot you might get a few hits about kitchen pans, but everything else was content that I had put up or others had posted about it. Over the years, it seems that marijuana legalizers came to accept the phrase as the phrase is commonly used in many forums. I don't know if that is good or bad for the cause. I wish that I knew.

I have gotten messages from people who say they would support lesser sentences for pot offenders, but they looked at the people on my site and some of them had imported hashish and/or cannabis so I shouldn't try to pass them off as people receiving life without parole just for pot. I apologize.

Since I'm old, I remember when it was called weed. Of course this was because during the war many mid-west farmers were required too grow hemp for the war effort. When that stopped, the plant migrated to the ditches along the country roads of many states in the rural mid-west. These areas were a continual source of the product for many years to come. All you had to do was stop your car and harvest it.

The most interesting word I heard it called was a phrase my father used. Were he still alive, he would be 106 years old. He told me that his father told him he would buy him a car when he graduated from college if he still didn't smoke or drink. My father got the car. When he was about 80 years old I asked him if he had ever smoked or drunk alcohol - other than an occasional glass of wine. He said no, but after a moment he said well, maybe just a little rope behind the barn.

That's my favorite word for pot - rope.

Posted by: beth | Feb 8, 2016 8:24:50 PM

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