Is the Word 'Marijuana' Racist?

During a forum at a high school, a Rhode Island candidate for attorney general compared the term to an extreme racial epithet and called it "a curse to my people."


A candidate for attorney general in Rhode Island flew off the handle yesterday after his opponent refused to stop using the word marijuana. Alan Gordon's outburst, which took place at a local high school, culminated in him comparing the use of the term to a racial epithet after which he stormed off the stage.

"That's like saying N-I-G-G-E-R," Gordon told Democratic candidate Peter Neronha, making emphatic hand gestures as he spelled out the insulting term. Shockingly, the crowd of high school students erupted into wild cheers in response.

Gordon also blasted the word marijuana as "a curse to my people."

"You will not say it in this school again, today or in lessons. Knock it off!" he said. Then, Gordon walked off the stage. According to TMZ, he did not return.

A bit of background: Gordon, a member of the Compassion Party, has no problem with weed itself. In fact, he was arrested earlier this month after police found 48 pounds of marijuana in the home he shares with Anne Armstrong, who's running for governor on the Compassion Party ticket. The candidates have said they think their arrests were politically motivated.

What Gordon does not like is the term marijuana. And last night at North Kingstown High School, where the attorney general candidates took questions from students, he made sure everyone knew.

Armstrong told TMZ Gordon was promised beforehand that Neronha would not use the term. Neronha apparently did anyway—twice.

Gordon's issue with the term stems from his belief that it's rooted in racism. It's not a completely outlandish idea. In fact, one of the leaders of the movement to make weed illegal has been accused of using blatant racism to argue for prohibition. "There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others," Harry J. Anslinger, who led the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 to 1962, reportedly once said.

Reason's Jacob Sullum has noted that the origin of the term marijuana is unclear. But a 1925 headline from The New York Times—"Mexican, Crazed by Marihuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife"—is probably one of the reasons some people feel like the word has a racist connotation.

Neronha, for his part, doesn't plan to stop saying marijuana any time soon. In an interview this morning with Dan Paquet, a local radio host for WPRO, Neronha said he's "comfortable using the word" because it's what everyone uses.

Neronha called Gordon's behavior "unconventional" and "not something that I would ever engage in." Still, he emphasized that he has no problem with Gordon himself, and would not be opposed to facing him again in a similar setting.