Cannabis: using scientific or slang names?

Everyone has heard the terms “marijuana”, “weed”, “pot”, and “hemp” when referring to cannabis plants. Users have also probably heard of the strain names “Blue Dream” and “OG Kush.” These are all slang names for the cannabis plants that people have created over the past century. So what was “marijuana” called before the 20th century?

All plant species, no matter their purpose, have scientific names that are agreed upon in the science community. Carl Linnaeus was a scientist and botanist in the 18th century. He is the scientist who created the scientific naming system that we know today. This controversial plant was not controversial in Linnaeus’ time. He assigned it a scientific name like he did for all other plants. He named it: Cannabis sativa LThe term Cannabis is the genus name, and the term sativa L. is the species name (L for Linnaeus).

Phylogenetic Tree: Mukherjee et. al.2008.

During the Paleolithic period, humans were using both psychoactive and non-psychoactive cannabis plants. It is believed that humans have been cultivating it for about 12,000 years. (Warf, B. 2014. High points: an historical geography of cannabis. Geographical Review 104: 412-448). Through reading papers concerning the geographical distribution of cannabis, we can see that cannabis seeds spread from central/east Asia westerly to Europe, Africa, and then to the Americas.

Linnaeus was primarily researching in Europe, so he had only known one type of cannabis plant. Different types of cannabis plants were found in other regions of the world. After Linnaeus identified Cannabis sativa L. there was a bushier type of cannabis plant found in India, and it was named as a new species: Cannabis indica. There was also another version of cannabis found growing in the wild, and that was referred to as Cannabis ruderalis.

Psychoactive cannabis geographical distribution:

In the map above we see that psychoactive cannabis arrived in America during the United States’ Second Industrial revolution, around 1910. Non-psychoactive cannabis was in the Americas before the 20th century, which was mainly used for industrial purposes. Both non-psychoactive and psychoactive cannabis became a cash crop in the Americas. It was useful in a wide range of industries, like textiles and medicine. This plant, and its wide variety of uses, threatened companies operating in the early 20th century. This is when the name “marijuana” was born.

Harry Anslinger was a major prohibitionist who encouraged the usage of the word “marijuana” instead of Cannabis in the 1930s. It was a slang term which was created to make Cannabis sound like a dangerous drug from Mexico. Anslinger was a business man in competing industries, and knew that encouraging the use of the word “marijuana” (or “marihuana”) would help to turn his customers away from the plant.

Despite the fact that hemp is non psychoactive and was primarily used for textiles, it was also misnamed and categorized by the late 1940s. All different types of cannabis were grouped together and referred to as a “drug”. It is taking quite some time to recover from the damage the misnaming of cannabis has done. 

Starting in the 20th century, cannabis was artificially selected for various uses and effects. This led to high numbers of unique “strains” of cannabis. Original species like sativa, indica and ruderalis were mixed and no longer true to their name. With new strains of cannabis emerging each year, researchers had to go back to the drawing board. Each strain couldn’t possibly have its own species name, that would result in hundreds of different species. It is still disputed by some scientists, but it is currently accepted that there is only one species of cannabis plants, and that is: Cannabis sativa L. All of the different “strains” of cannabis are now considered sub-species of Cannabis sativa L., not completely different species of Cannabis.

Many people today still believe that sativa, hybrid, and indica are proper terms to classify types of cannabis. The truth is that there is only one species, but hundreds of sub-species (strains). There are differing levels of cannabinoids (i.e. CBD, THC, CBN, etc.) and terpene profiles in each sub-species of cannabis.

There are still some in the industry that rely on the terms “marijuana,” “indica,” and “sativa” when selling cannabis products. There are also some in the industry that have started identifying the different marijuana strains by making up creative names. This helps to simplify the branding and marketing for companies.

With both medical and recreational cannabis legalization on the rise, it raises serious questions. Should we use the term “marijuana” or call it by its scientific name? Should cannabis strains be classified as different species or keep them as sub-species? As an industry, how do we correctly and consistently name all of the types cannabis? Should medical and recreational cannabis have different names? Do cannabis users prefer to use slang names for the different strains, or would users prefer to have a scientific name to refer to each type of cannabis?

The cannabis community should actively discuss solutions and potential improvements to these issues. What potential solutions are available?

Here is a quote from researchers on what they think a possible solution is:

“In our opinion, an application of the taxon system to the genus Cannabis together with the sativa/indica distinction should be avoided, as recently suggested. Due to the prevalent economic interest of the cultivated varieties of Cannabis, a simplified nomenclature system based on ICNCP should be applied. According to ICNCP, it is not mandatory to use the species epithets, sativa or indica, and a combination of the genus name and a cultivar epithet, in any language and bounded by single quotation marks (i.e., Cannabis ‘fibranova’, to cite a cultivar largely cultivated for fiber production), defines an exclusive name for each Cannabis cultivar.”!po=68.1818 (Antonino Pollio. Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research. Dec 2016.

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