How did we go from using the term cannabis to marihuana, and back again? In August, the Federal Government of Canada introduced the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations. The ACMPR is an update to previous legislation that was found to be in violation of Canadians’ right to reasonable access to cannabis for medical purposes (Allard v. Canada, 2016). This new legislation updated the antiquated language the government had previously been using. The previous framework, Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), used the term ‘marihuana’ instead of the plant’s actual name: cannabis.

What’s in a name: Cannabis to Marijuana

The term cannabis originated in Latin and Greek etymology and was first used by the Scythians in reference to the plant as early as the second century B.C.E. The Scythians are credited with spreading use of the plant through the Middle East and into Europe, where it would eventually receive its scientific classification from botanist Carolus Linnaeus in 1753: cannabis sativa. Prior to the 1900s, the word cannabis was well-known and found on the ingredient list of medications for common ailments such as cough medicines and sleep aids. In common language, ‘marijuana’ replaced the original term. Marijuana is a term with somewhat different roots.

Harry Anslinger, the first director for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, is responsible for popularizing the term marijuana/marihuana. According to Martin Lee’s latest book Smoke Signals, the term marijuana/marihuana can be traced back to the early 1930s when it appeared in a campaign aimed at smearing Mexican migrants and cannabis, their substance of choice.

“By stigmatizing marijuana and the ‘foreigners’ who smoked it . . . [the U.S. government] succeeded in exacerbating anti-Mexican sentiment during the Great Depression, when many Anglos felt they were competing with brown-skinned migrants for scarce jobs . . . Anslinger disclosed in 1936 that 50 percent of violent crimes committed in districts occupied by ‘Mexicans, Greeks, Turks, Filipinos, Spaniards, Latin Americans, and Negros may be traced to the use of marihuana’ . . . Anslinger brandished the non-English term like a truncheon to emphasize the weed’s connection to alien elements that crept over the Mexican border into the United States.” (p. 51)

Cannabis and the individuals who used it were painted as blemishes on society.

The Racist Roots

The Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 (United States) was passed and the term, steeped in racism, was written into law. Canada shares a similar history of drug prohibition: Cannabis was added to the Confidential Restricted List in 1923 under the Narcotics Drug Act Amendment Bill and 1937 marked the first arrest for cannabis that occurred in Canada. It’s no secret that a disproportionate number of minorities have been targeted by the War on Drugs. In Canada, Blacks and Aboriginals make up a significant portion of the prison population while making up a much smaller proportion of the general population, however, they are disproportionately arrested for cannabis-related crimes when compared to whites, despite comparable rates of use.

Bringing Science Back

Reintegration of cannabis’s scientific name into common and political discourse represents a change in attitude towards the substance, both publicly and politically. The Federal Government’s decision to replace the ignorant term marijuana is a step towards more inclusive, academic, and scientific policies. The words we choose to use often reflect our beliefs and biases, so let’s hope this signals a shift in the government’s approach and perspective on one of the country’s most widely consumed drugs.

With science being re-integrated into drug policy, we hope our government values evidence and will incorporate what young people have to say about cannabis legalization into upcoming laws – and realize that cannabis is just the beginning for harm reduction and sensible drug policy in Canada. Don’t forget to sign our petition to stop the continued criminalization of dispensary workers in Toronto!

For more information

Khenti, A. (2013). The Canadian War on Drugs: Structural violence and unequal treatment of Black Canadians. The International Journal on Drug Policy, 25(2), 190-195.

Lee, M. A. (2013). Smoke Signals


Michelle Theissen

Michelle Theissen


An Honours graduate with a Psychology B.A. from the University of British Columbia, Michelle will begin her Masters in Clinical Psychology in fall 2016, continuing her research examining the motivations and outcomes of recreational and therapeutic use of cannabis and psychedelics. Find out more.

Megan L. Stager

CSSDP Member

Megan is a psychology student at the University of British Columbia, currently in the final year of her B.A. Hons. Her research interests include legal psychology, morality, drug policy, and well-being. In her spare time, Megan is involved in knowledge dissemination and serves as Treasurer of the Okanagan chapter of the CSSDP.