Medically Reviewed by
Jason Crawford

Article Last Updated on December 21, 2022

When it comes to slang terms related to marijuana, you can find a thousand and one all over the world. Weed has been called ganja, mary jane, chronic, and other names, but marijuana is still the most commonly used word to describe the cannabis plant.

Our previous articles covered other slang terms related to marijuana like mids weed, reg weed, and loud weed, so in this article, we’re writing about the origin of the word marijuana as well as why this particular word is used to name the cannabis plant.

What Is Marijuana?

Marijuana is a psychoactive drug that originates from the cannabis plant which has three types:

  • Cannabis Sativa;
  • Cannabis Indica;
  • Cannabis Ruderalis.

After a number of legalization laws around the US, some states now allow the legal use of marijuana as medical marijuana, while other states legalized it for recreational use as well. Both medical and recreational marijuana can be bought from licensed dispensaries in states where weed is legal.

The cannabis plant contains over 400 chemical compounds out of which at least 65 are cannabinoids. Out of those 65 cannabinoids, the most important ones are the psychoactive cannabinoid, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and the sedative cannabinoid, cannabidiol (CBD).

Whatever the reasons for marijuana use may be, both medical and recreational marijuana users smoke, vape, dab, ingest, or apply marijuana as a tincture. (Small et al, 2015)

Marijuana’s Rise to Popularity in the US

Before we go into how the term marijuana was coined, we first need to go over how this popular plant made its way into the US.


The word “marijuana” didn’t exist in American terminology prior to the Mexican revolution. The word that was mostly used was “cannabis.” In the early 1900s, the pharmaceutical company Bristol Myers Squibb first started including cannabis and cannabis extracts in medicine.

Before this, the popular trend in America was hashish, and celebrities experimented with a variety of cannabis products as well as other high-quality imported goods.


After 1910, around 900,000 Mexican immigrants moved to the US as an aftermath of the Mexican Civil War. Even though cannabis was used in the US prior to the Mexican migration, the recreational use of cannabis was not as popular until the immigrants brought their smoking habit with them to the US.

The first laws for criminalizing weed came after weed became popular and widespread around the US in the 1910s. In 1913, the cultivation of “locoweed” was prohibited by the California Board of Pharmacy as a way to regulate opiates and psychoactive pharmaceuticals. Together with the “reefer madness,” it paved the way for the prohibition that followed in the 1930s.


As the Great Depression hit the United States, Americans started to treat cannabis as a substance that corrupted people, which started to give weed a negative connotation. Even before marijuana became illegal under federal law, as many as 29 states independently banned it.

Harry Anslinger and the Stigma Around Cannabis

As weed became less and less popular, people started to speak out about it. One of the individuals who created the most stigma around cannabis was Harry Anslinger. Harry was the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics who in 1930 launched the campaign against cannabis (which secured his position in office for the following three decades).

Anslinger used movie theaters to spread racial messages about cannabis to white audiences, published a report titled “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth,” and even testified before Congress in favor of marijuana prohibition. Part of his speech included the following statement:

“Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind… Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage.”

Another one of his racist statements was the following: “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men…the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.” In addition, Anslinger crafted propaganda films such as “Reefer Madness” and used the term “marijuana” as a way of alluding to the plant’s new “foreign” identity.

As a result, cannabis became less popular and eventually, Congress approved the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. The act criminalized the possession of marijuana all over the United States.


As we’ve previously said, Anslinger’s work ultimately culminated with the passing of the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 which was the first step prior to its prohibition. As a result of the act, people who sold or cultivated the cannabis plant would have to pay a one-dollar tax. Apart from the tax, the act mandated cannabis cultivators to comply with some enforcement provisions. If the provisions were violated, the culprits would face imprisonment or a fine of up to $2,000.

As you may have noticed, the term “marijuana,” which is deeply embedded in the American lexicon today, wasn’t always as popular as it is now. The history of the plant is intertwined with politics, race, and a cultural revolution, so let’s find out why weed is called marijuana.

Where Did the Term Marijuana Originate?

Marijuana has become a universal synonym for the cannabis plant all over the world. As we’ve previously mentioned, the Spanish were the ones that brought cannabis to Mexico, and the Mexicans brought weed to the US, so it’s highly probable that marijuana is linked to Spanish or Mexican terminology. Below, we’ll give you a list of the theories related to the origin of the word marijuana:

  • Marijuana may be a blend of the names Maria and Juana (the Spanish version of the names Mary and Jane which coins another English slang term for marijuana – Mary Jane).
  • Marijuana may have been coined from the Mexican and Spanish “marihuana” or “mariguana.”
  • The term may have come from Chinese immigrants who migrated to Western Mexico and referred to the plant as “ma ren hua” which may have led the Spanish to name it “marijuana.”
  • The word may have come from a colloquial Spanish word for Chinese oregano – mejorana chino.
  • Maybe Angolan slaves brought to Brazil by the Portuguese used the Bantu word for cannabis “ma-kaña” and marijuana was coined afterward.

The slang term pot, however, may have come from the Spanish phrase “potación de guaya,” or “potion of grief,” which was the name of a popular 20th-century Mexican drink. The Spanish word “potiguaya” means seeds, so it’s obviously connected to the cannabis plant. Other popular words for marijuana are terms like “weed” and “grass” which are also widely used around the world.

Final Thoughts and Other Popular Marijuana Slang Terms

Marijuana, the plant that a lot of users know and love, has had a wide variety of slang terms ever since it started being used all over the world in the 19th century. While the term “marijuana” was probably coined from the Spanish or Mexican language, there is no definitive origin of the word.

Even today, marijuana has an ever-growing list of slang terms and some of the most popular ones include: weed, pot, grass, dope, reefer, ganja, hash, herb, chronic, and others. Each culture has its own slang terms as weed is becoming more popular to use, so we can’t even imagine the terms that will be coined in the future.

Additional Sources

Small, Ernest. (2015). Evolution and Classification of Cannabis sativa (Marijuana, Hemp) in Relation to Human Utilization. Botanical Review. 81. 189-294. DOI:10.1007/s12229-015-9157-3

A passionate advocate for the benefits of cannabis. Fraser Horton, who has a background in botany and a strong love of nature, has spent years researching how cannabis affects the body and mind. He established Leaf Nation in 2020, where he has devoted himself to educating people about the legalisation of marijuana and its safe and responsible use. Fraser is committed to highlighting cannabis’ potential for improving wellness and working to dispel the stigma associated with its use.


The information presented on this page is provided as a public service to aid in education and is derived from sources believed to be reliable. Readers are responsible for making their own assessment of the topics discussed here. In no event shall Leaf Nation be held reliable for any injury, loss or damage that could happen if using or abusing drugs.