Voices: That's not marijuana -- that's cannabis

DENVER — Last December, Denver police reported a major increase in the number of marijuana-related arrests in the city's schools.

Parents were outraged at the 39% increase in a single year — the year in which Colorado legalized recreational marijuana sales. But it turned out the number of underage users was wrong.

That's because while filling out their reports, some police officers used the now-archaic "marihuana" spelling. Data analysts pulling the numbers forgot to look for the old spelling in the old records and came up with inaccurate totals. The revised numbers showed only a 6% increase.

The snafu over the spelling highlights what's turning into a heated debate within the legal and increasingly mainstream marijuana community,

For a variety of reasons, many folks in the legal weed community would like to see "marijuana" and "pot" and "weed" relegated to the scrapheap of pejorative descriptions. And they aren't shy about letting me know their feelings. One reader, for instance, complained that my word choices made me sound ignorant and biased.

Their preferred choice: cannabis.

For some, the old and frequently used words evoke the scare tactics long employed by governments and police. There's a school of thought that "marijuana" opponents ginned up the word because it sounded scary and foreign. (Although I can't find evidence that that's the case, despite what Wikipedia might say.)

For others, the words are loaded with reefer madness baggage. With proliferating legalization and mounting acceptance of pot across the country, they say it's time for a better name. These ganjapreneurs believe cannabis sounds more positive.

But switching words isn't that easy, as lawmakers and regulators are finding out.

"There's really a landmine out there in terms of the words we use," says Ron Flax, an examiner with the Boulder County Land Use Department.

What most people call marijuana is actually two different strains of cannabis: indica and sativa, both of which contain THC, the compound that gets people high. (Hemp is a sub-strain of the sativa plant containing very little THC that's used for clothing, rope and oil.) The different strains have different effects, depending on how they've been crossbred. And don't even get me started on the brand names growers give, like Sour Kush or Blue Dream; there's no regulation of what growers call their products.

Working in the famously marijuana-friendly "People's Republic of Boulder," Flax tries to be careful about the language he chooses. Last year, as the county was developing regulations about pot growhouse energy use, Flax started saying "cannabis" when talking to the industry, as a sign of respect for legitimate business owners. But he ran into a hiccup because county regulations and state laws refer to the plant as marijuana or marihuana.

If he wants his regulations to be legal, Flax has to call marijuana marijuana. And he's not alone. The laws in Oregon and Alaska legalize "marijuana," while the laws in Washington and Colorado legalize both "marijuana" and "marihuana."

And that highlights the challenges of changing how we describe things. You may have noticed I've used a variety of words when referring to marijuana. It's hard to argue readers don't understand that reefer, pot, weed and ganja all mean the same thing. As Shakespeare's Juliet might muse, does the name really matter, be it marijuana or Montague?

But I get where people are coming from. After decades of operating in the shadows, marijuana retailers (we used to call them drug dealers) crave the legitimacy that comes from regulation and public respect. And they want to see the language reflect that marijuana has indeed gone mainstream.

Hughes is a Denver-based correspondent for USA TODAY

(Copyright © 2015 USA TODAY)


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