Study: Does Calling Marijuana “Cannabis” Matter?

Marijuana vs Cannabis
The terms "cannabis" and "marijuana" have been a point of contention, with some arguing that the term "cannabis" is more appropriate and less stigmatized. However, a study conducted by Vanderbilt University and YouGov found that the public's opinion on legalization is not significantly influenced by whether the substance is referred to as "cannabis" or "marijuana". The study did find that the term "medical" positively impacts support for legalization, suggesting that advocates should focus on the plant's medical use. The term "marijuana" originated in the early 20th century from prohibitionists who sought to give the cannabis plant a foreign-sounding name to discourage use.
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A growing debate is centered around the terms “cannabis” and “marijuana.”

The term “marijuana” certainly has a storied past, with some citing racist origins and others arguing against its non-medical nature. Countless advocates for legalization believe that “cannabis” is the more appropriate term, and that using this label in place of “marijuana” will appeal to more people.

But does it really matter?

Surprising results from a survey conducted by Vanderbilt University, in partnership with YouGov, suggest the answer is: Not so much.

What’s Wrong With “Marijuana”?

The term “marijuana” came to widespread use during the early 20th century as a result of prohibitionists who sought to give the cannabis plant a more foreign-sounding name. They believed that in doing so, the public would shy away from cannabis use due to this association.

As The Guardian explains:

For the prohibitionists of nearly a century ago, the exotic-sounding word emphasized the drug’s foreignness to white Americans and appealed to the xenophobia of the time.

With so much focus on racial injustice these days, many wish to distance the cannabis plant from its racially charged past. The hope, in switching “marijuana” for “cannabis,” is that the public will see the plant more favorably, thus increasing the possibility for positive reform.

Scientists Weigh In

A recent study, “Has the “M” word been framed? Marijuana, cannabis, and public opinion”, published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, sought to analyze people’s opinions on the following four terms:

  • Marijuana
  • Cannabis
  • Medical marijuana
  • Medical cannabis

Topics in the survey included:

  • Legalization
  • Moral acceptability
  • Tolerance of drug activities
  • Perceptions of harms
  • Stereotypes of users

The final word, as laid out in the survey’s results, is that focusing on the terms “cannabis” and “marijuana” doesn’t really matter as far as the public’s opinion on legalization is concerned.

Additional results found:

* 50.1% support “marijuana legalization” versus 50.3% who support “cannabis legalization”

* 34% strongly support “cannabis legalization” versus 26% who strongly support “marijuana legalization”

* 43.8% said “marijuana” was morally acceptable, while 44.3% said the same for “cannabis”

* The term “medical” appears to have a positive effect on the support of legalization

* Regardless of the term, nearly the same number of participants claimed they looked unfavorably on: a dispensary opening locally, public cannabis use, and educators using cannabis in private

* No difference was observed in responses when people were asked about the claimed potential harms of “marijuana” and “cannabis”

* When the terms “cannabis” and “marijuana” were used, consumers were described as “lazy” and “teenaged”; however, when these terms were proceeded with “medical,” consumers were described as “honest” and “sick”

Based off these findings, the study authors came to the conclusion that switching out the term “marijuana” for “cannabis” would not likely help reform prospects or sway the public’s attitude positively, stating:

Throughout each of our tests, we find no evidence to suggest that the public distinguishes between the terms “marijuana” and “cannabis.”

Important Finding

While the survey didn’t confirm what many cannabis industry proponents had thought, it did find something important: Although the terms “cannabis” and “marijuana” appear to be interchangeable, as far as public opinion is concerned, the public views the plant more favorably when it is referred to medically.

As the researchers note:

[People are] more morally accepting of it, less bothered by activities involving it, less convinced that it is harmful and more likely to attribute positive traits to its users when told that the drug is “medical.”

This suggests that legalization advocates should consider focusing on the plant’s medical use, and not get caught up on the terms “cannabis” and “marijuana.”

While speaking with Marijuana Moment about the survey, NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano stated:

Reformers are winning the legalization debate on the strength of our core arguments — namely, the fact that legalization and regulation is better for public health and safety than is criminalization — and not because of any particular change in the lexicon surrounding the cannabis plant.

Updated: July 27, 2023

Article Written By:

Jeremy Campbell

Jeremy is a professional writer specializing in medical cannabis and alternative health reporting.


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