Marijuana, cannabis, or hemp: Why Minnesota is choosing its words carefully

Published 6:04 pm Tuesday, March 19, 2024

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By Estelle Timar-Wilcox

When the state of Minnesota legalized adult-use cannabis last year, legislators made a subtle change to the books: they struck most mentions of “marijuana” and swapped it out for “cannabis.”

Amid the slew of changes coming with legalization — expunging criminal records, setting up a licensing, staffing up the Office of Cannabis Management after a botched appointment — the language change is small. But it’s become common practice across the country as more states legalize it.

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Leili Fatehi is a founder of Blunt Strategies, a consulting agency that helps cannabis businesses get going. Before starting her business, she campaigned for legalization for several years.

Blunt Strategies’ website sticks to the word cannabis. That’s partly because of a thorny history behind the term “marijuana.”

Before 1900 or so, most medical reports and studies in the U.S called it cannabis, the scientific name. But, around the turn of the century, many newspapers and politicians started calling it “marijuana,” the Spanish word for the plant.

A lot of headlines warned of people driven to madness by “marijuana” — particularly Mexican immigrants.

“The term ‘marijuana’ was used with all those pejorative connotations attached to it, racist connotations attached to it,” Fatehi said. “As folks began to do advocacy towards setting up legal regulated industry, they wanted to move away from that term.”

People of color have been disproportionately policed for cannabis use ever since. The ACLU reported in 2020 that Black people were more than five times more likely to be arrested for marijuana charges in Minnesota than white people, despite similar usage rates.

That’s the reason that equity has been at the center of some lawmakers’ efforts for legalization. The state will automatically expunge marijuana-related misdemeanors from peoples’ records; it’s also committed to distribute at least 51 percent of dispensary licenses to people disproportionately impacted by previous laws.

The language shift goes along with that.  Rep. Jess Hanson, DFL-Burnsville, co-authored the legalization bill.

“We want to make sure that not just are we allowing people to consume this healing plant, but also we’re addressing the harms of the past too,” Hanson said. “One of the ways is to use the right word, and not the racially loaded word.”

That doesn’t mean you’ll never see the word anymore. “Marijuana” still shows up in several places relating to past convictions. Hanson said they left it in to keep the language for marijuana-related crimes consistent, in the hopes of facilitating the process of expungement.

Veronika Alfaro still uses the term sometimes, too. Her business, called Mi Sota Essence, sells THC-infused bath oils and salves, and also some culturally specific edibles: Mexican cookies called polvorones, and agua fresca that comes with a sprinkle of chamoy and Tajin.    

When she started up her business, she found that “cannabis” had a better connotation with some people. Growing up, the drug was frowned upon; people who used it were seen as lazy.

“When I would talk to my parents at first, I would tell them ‘cannabis,’ or ‘THC,’ just to kind of make it a little more palatable for them to digest,” Alfaro said.

But when Alfaro calls it cannabis in conversation, people sometimes don’t get it.

“In the Latino community, when I’m talking to them, or even when I’m out at markets, when I say that, they’re like, ‘what is that?’” Alfaro said. “I go back to the word — it’s marijuana.”

Todd Harris is the founder of Plift, a THC-infused beverage company based in St. Paul. He calls it marijuana in conversation, and Plift’s marketing calls it THC or hemp.

“Marijuana is what the Black community refers to it as,” Harris said.

Harris, who is Black, avoids the word cannabis. He says it usually refers to a different industry than the hemp industry — the business of higher-potency cannabis plants, which is now legal in Minnesota.

In other states that have legalized the drug, Harris notes that the industry tends to be dominated by mostly big, white-owned businesses. The hemp industry is more diverse, and, Harris said, more accessible than the limited-license non-hemp cannabis industry.

And, even though hemp and cannabis are technically the same drug — hemp just has a lower potency — he said that’s not how the federal government sees it. Federal law allows hemp production; higher-potency non-hemp cannabis is a schedule 1 drug.

“At the very most basic, they’re both cannabis,” Harris said. “But anyone who wants to say the same thing is denying the fact that the federal government has clearly stated that they’re not. Looking to pull all cannabis plants, hemp and marijuana, under one umbrella, doesn’t work for us.”

Fatehi, too, doesn’t want to just stop saying “marijuana” altogether. While shifting language is part of shifting understandings, she says it doesn’t serve anyone to draw a hard line between “cannabis” and “marijuana.”

“There was really a need to make sure that Minnesotans understood that when we’re talking about cannabis, it’s the same as marijuana,” Fatehi said. “We’re talking about the same thing being sold, it just becomes a different set of context.”