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What’s in a name?


‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;

– Shakepeare’s Romeo and Juliet

I’ve been doing some thinking about names and words used in connection with drug policy reform. Do they matter? Are there some we should avoid?
Marijuana
There are those in the reform community who would prefer that we didn’t use the word “marijuana.” And with reason.
It’s got some baggage. Look back in history — the earliest efforts to outlaw the plant at a federal level involved racism and the intentional use of the Spanish word for the plant — so that those who used it for medical and industrial reasons under other names did not even realize what was happening.
And even today, many people associate “marijuana” with the so-called Cheech and Chong image of recreational use — a fact that distresses many medical use activists. They hate the term “medical marijuana” and prefer “medical cannabis.” They’re right — cannabis is the scientific name. They also claim that their chances of getting political cover with the name “marijuana” are greatly reduced. Possibly.
But the fact is that marijuana has become an accepted part of the language, and it is a perfectly correct term. And, quite frankly, it’s not possible to fool people today, even if we wanted to. They know we’re talking about marijuana, regardless of the word we use.
So yes, “cannabis” is a good term — a proper term. One that I’ll continue to use often, particularly when discussing the plant in scientific/medical terms. But “marijuana” is a good term — a proper term. One that has meaning to everyone — something that 100 million Americans know on an intimate basis.
If we’re going to make significant progress in eliminating the public reticence in talking about this plant, it won’t be through being afraid to speak any of its names.
Drug War/War on Drugs
In a very real sense, these are meaningless terms.
“War on drugs.” Sounds like an army on one side with a bunch of pills and plants on the other side. In fact, think about the words “War on…” What’s up with that? You can have a “war in” (war in the middle east) or “war against” (war against Islamist extremists), but whenever you hear “war on…” there’s something messed up going on.
And “drug war”? That invokes images of a battle between Paxil and Prozac — or price wars like the old gas wars of the 1970s.
And the problem with the war metaphor is that it encourages people to think in terms of winning and losing from the perspective of those waging the war, so that supporting the war (government) is seen as good, and opposing it (seeking another approach) is seen as undermining the war effort and advocating surrender/loss.
However, this is a true war, waged by the government against its own people. Maybe some day it will become known as the People’s War, but for now, we can’t escape the Drug War.
What we need to do is remind people that the Drug War is a war against the people and help them understand that they may not be on the side that they thought, regardless of whether they use, or condone the use of, currently illicit drugs.
Besides, I can’t avoid using the words “Drug War” at Drug WarRant now, can I?
Legalization
Here’s a controversial term. Some people ask me if I really mean “legalization” and not “decriminalization.” After all, we talk of the evils of criminalization, so why not reverse them with decriminalization? And “legalization” can be used by prohibitionists to invoke the absurd image of having pre-filled heroin needles shrink-wrapped for sale in the 7-11 for eight-year-olds to buy.
But “decriminalization,” like decaffeination, just doesn’t do it for me. It implies fixing everything that this drug war has done with some kind of minor adjustment. And while it can have the correct meaning, it is often used to refer to extremely unsatisfactory “solutions,” such as eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana use, making it merely a civil fine (leaving intact all the worst aspects of the drug war, including the black market and all that entails). Decriminalization can allow people to claim a reform view, without really taking a stand. It’s better than nothing, but it’s not good enough.
Legalization is sometimes misrepresented as anarchy by definition. But in fact, there are plenty of examples of legalized activities/products that are regulated — alcohol, tobacco, bungee jumping, etc., etc. There are plenty of different models of legalization — but the key thing is that the product/activity will be available through legal channels, not solely through the black market, and that’s critical.
Another reason to hang on to “legalization” — if we give up the word, it will become the property of the prohibitionists to define as they wish and to hang on us. It’s something they already have tried. They’d like “legalizers” to be some kind of nasty word, but they haven’t really pulled it off, except with a few enablers like Kleiman. The general public isn’t sure about legalization, but we have the ability to claim it and educate people with it.
So, to sum up:
Let’s end the drug war and legalize drugs, including marijuana.
What do you think?

“Words. Words.
They’re all we have to go on.”

– Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

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