Does the word “marijuana” in the United States have a racist history towards Mexicans? Yes, but in a different way than some may expect. The word “marijuana” was first used in Mexican newspapers as early as 1842, centuries after Indigenous Mexicans began smoking the plant. But U.S. officials likely latched onto the term to stigmatize the drug— and the Mexican community.

Before the early 1900s, Americans often referred to the plant as “cannabis” or “hashish.” In the U.S., cannabis for medical purposes was popular during the 19th and early 20th century. However, officials federally restricted cannabis in 1937 with the Marihuana Tax Act, criminalized possession in 1951, and later prohibited it in 1970 with the Controlled Substances Act.

And while the U.S. restricted cannabis in the 1930s, politicians began referring to the plant as “marijuana”— the Mexican term for it. As per the Missouri Independent, this may have been an effort to demonize the drug as a “Mexican vice.”

Interestingly enough, the 1937 restrictions on cannabis coincided with growing racism in the U.S. towards the Mexican community after a surge in immigration. As per the Library of Congress, the number of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. tripled from 200,000 to 600,000 between 1910 and 1930, but was likely far greater than that. This was largely due to a growing U.S. economy, and the bloody Mexican Revolution in the 1910s.

While rising U.S. laws seek to prohibit the use of the word “marijuana” due to its “racist” origins, some scholars argue that the issue is more complex than that.

U.S. officials likely adopted the term “marijuana” to depict it as a “Mexican vice”

As per The Baltimore Banner, Americans’ crusade against “marijuana” in the 1920s “reflected the anti-Mexican sentiment” brewing in the U.S. In fact, this racism is actually what may have given rise to cannabis prohibition in the first place.

Santiago Guerra, a professor of Southwest studies at Colorado College, told the outlet that racism towards Mexican immigrants fueled the criminalization of marijuana. In the 1930s, Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner Harry J. Anslinger created stigmas against the drug and the Mexican community.

According to The News House, Anslinger created propaganda campaigns that painted Mexicans as an “inferior race” that used marijuana. Officials intentionally connected drug use to the community in order to demonize both the people and the plant.

The commissioner also related marijuana use to the U.S. Black community and jazz music, once stating: “Their satanic music, jazz and swing results from marijuana usage.” 1936 anti-weed propaganda movie “Reefer Madness” put it like this: “Marijuana, the burning weed with its roots in hell.”

Isaac Campos, University of Cincinnati professor of Latin American History, told Missouri Independent that Americans used the term “marijuana” to describe Mexicans’ way of using the drug: smoking it in cigarettes. “That’s why the word sticks,” he explained. “Because the word was associated with this particular way of taking the drug that came from Mexico.”

However, the term coincided with growing anti-Mexican rhetoric, and Americans used it to vilify the community. As per Insider, marijuana got “such a bad [reputation]” due to “racism.” The outlet explains: “By emphasizing the Spanish word ‘marihuana’ instead of cannabis, [Anslinger] created a strong association between the drug and the newly arrived Mexican immigrants that helped popularize it in the [U.S.].”

According to the outlet, one year after the Marihuana Tax Act passed in 1937, Mexicans were nine times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than Caucasians.

Many years later, stigmas around marijuana continue to disproportionately affect people of color. In the U.S., 70.8% of federal offenders sentenced for marijuana possession from 2018 to 2023 were Latino. In recent years, 87% of those arrested in New York City for marijuana possession have been Black or Latino.

Washington State legislators passed a law in 2022 that changes official use of the word “marijuana” to “cannabis.” Washington state Rep. Melanie Morgan said at the time: “The term ‘marijuana’ itself is pejorative and racist… We’re healing the wrongs that were committed against Black and Brown people around cannabis.”

However, the solution isn’t necessarily so clear-cut. Erasing the word “marijuana” from our common lexicon may erase Mexico from the conversation altogether— as white men primarily benefit from the booming cannabis industry.

“That [Mexican] history gets silenced by saying ‘Don’t use that word because it’s a racist term,'” Prof. Guerra told The Baltimore Banner.