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.
At NORML we do not follow some stylebook, and we use all kinds of words to describe marijuana at different times. I’m an old-timer so I generally stick with “marijuana,” and I do not consider it a negative term. It’s the name most Americans use to identify the plant. But others at NORML prefer “cannabis”, and our political alerts, press releases and media interviews also frequently include the use of “pot” or “weed” or other popular slang terms for marijuana.
As an aside, it is a little strange that one would write NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, to suggest that we stop using the word “marijuana.” We are proud of the acronym NORML, a double entendre, which is also our registered service mark. We wanted to normalize marijuana smoking when we started the organization in 1970, and NORML seemed like the perfect acronym.
But more importantly, those who feel the term we choose to use in our advocacy is a primary obstacle holding the country back from legalizing marijuana, misunderstand the nature of our opponents.
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.
It’s the level of public support that determines when and where we legalize marijuana. Public attitudes, in a country as large as the US, change slowly, and gradually, over a period of time. 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.