I was talking with a colleague the other day about the advent of legal recreational marijuana in Illinois when out of my mouth came words that horrified me the minute they emerged.
“I’ve never really liked dope,” I said.
I wasn’t horrified to admit I don’t like dope — I’m not embarrassed to say I prefer other paths to an altered state — but I cringed to hear myself call it that.
I mean, dope?
Did saying “dope” make me look old?
The minute I said it, I knew it did. It was like wearing a halter top, flowered bell-bottoms, a string of love beads and a middle part in my hair. All of which, I regret to say, I used to do, even though I’ve never really liked dope — or whatever it’s cool to call it now.
Is it still cool to say “cool?”
Whatever the word — marijuana? cannabis? weed? pot? — everybody’s talking about it these days, but as we talk, the question grows more urgent: What are we supposed to call this stuff?
Some of the groovy old words for it seem as outdated as “groovy.”
“I use ‘marijuana’ because that is the most common, widely understood term for it,” says my aforementioned colleague, Bob McCoppin, who’s covering the state’s legalization for the Tribune.
Many media organizations still use the word “marijuana.” It’s the generally preferred word in the AP Stylebook. But it, too, could soon seem outdated, stained as it is by racist associations.
If you said, “Really?” you’re not alone.
I didn’t realize until recently that in the early 1900s, “marijuana” — aka “marihuana” — came to be associated in racist ways with Mexican immigrants to the United States, a connection that played a role in the move to ban it.
There remains debate about the word’s racist roots, but there’s no doubt that the rise of the word “marijuana” — for a substance previously known as “cannabis” or “Indian hemp” — came attached with ugly racial attitudes.
One Prohibition leader even blamed marijuana for “Satanic music,” by which he meant jazz and swing.
But that was another century. Now the medicinal uses of marijuana are more widely accepted. The cultivation of the cannabis plant from which the drug is derived is big business. Laws are changing, and so are words.
“We call it cannabis,” Illinois state Sen. Heather Steans, a leader in the state’s legalization movement, said when I asked for her preferred term. “‘Marijuana’ has a pejorative history.”
In the vernacular, Steans said, the current common terms are “weed” or “pot.”
But here in 2019 even “pot” comes with a whiff of Grandma’s attic.
“Well, I used to say ‘pot’ until my daughters upbraided me and instructed me that it is now ‘weed,’” says a friend with millennial children. “Does anyone still call it Mary Jane?”
Sorry, Granny, I don’t think so. But how would I know? I’m still saying, “dope.”
Reefer. Ganja. Grass. The slang for dope is vast, much of it redolent of distant times.
“Because it’s such a widely consumed substance and it’s been illegal for almost a hundred years, there had to be code words for it,” says Dan Linn, executive director at the Illinois chapter of NORML, which is the acronym for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Despite the organization’s name, Linn, too, prefers the term “cannabis” these days, though sometimes he’ll say “weed” or “pot” when talking with high school and college friends.
“Nostalgic terms from my youth,” he said. He means the 1990s.
“If I’m talking amongst friends or purposely being tongue-in-cheek, then I might call it ‘dope,’” he says. “You’d have to go back to the ’80s or 1990s to find it referred to as that with consistency.”
The legalization trend raises more pressing questions than what to call this weed. Questions like: Who will reap the profits of the booming business? Have the potentially harmful effects been sufficiently explored?
But the smaller questions like what to call it matter too. The etiquette guru Lizzie Post addresses nomenclature in her new book “Higher Etiquette: A Guide to the World of Cannabis, From Dispensaries to Dinner Parties.”
Her answer is: Call it cannabis.
But don’t be surprised if the prediction by my friend who still calls it “pot” comes true:
“I’m betting that some of the truly old lingo will be reclaimed and repackaged as vintage. Reefer madness! If it was good enough for 1936, it’s good enough for 2019.”