Culture

How the words we use to discuss marijuana help shape the larger conversation

Do you call it dope or cannabis?

Are they users or consumers?

Is it a pot shop or a marijuana dispensary?

The world of weed has a language all its own. That’s why there are articles on “what your word for weed says about you” and entire books devoted to defining everything from BHO to water hash.

When I began covering marijuana as my full-time beat 18 months ago, I had a basic understanding of the difference between, say, sativa and indica. Soon, I was getting familiar with terms like terpenes and trichomes, dabs and shatter.

Learning the lingo is one thing. Understanding the connotations many of these words carry – and the impact our choice to use one over another can have on the broader conversation about marijuana – is a minefield many of us are still navigating.

There was that time an experienced grower scolded me for using the term “marijuana,” since it was popularized by anti-Mexican racists in the early 1900s. Still the word sticks in phrases such as “medical marijuana,” which Google will tell you is much more common than “medical cannabis.”

Then there was a dispensary owner who got upset with a colleague of mine because she described edibles as “pot-laced” rather than “cannabis-infused.” Turns out her editor had inserted that term – not because he was secretly trying to fuel fears of candy laced with drugs, but because he simply hadn’t learned the language.

Even California’s regulatory agency has struggled with its title, going from the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation to the Bureau of Cannabis Control as laws shifted and stakeholders weighed in.

News agencies can certainly go too far down this path. Our job is to inform readers, not to carry water for the legalization movement. That’s why I typically still use “recreational” rather than “adult use” to describe non-medical marijuana. Though industry insiders tell me they prefer the latter, the regular readers I’m trying to reach have said “adult use” doesn’t immediately ring clear.

On the other hand, language must evolve. That’s why I might say “weed lovers” instead of “potheads,” to move away from the disproven characterization of all cannabis consumers as unaccomplished. And it’s why I’ve vowed to avoid pot puns, with no references to “going up in smoke” or “blazing new trails” in my marijuana stories if I can help it.

When you write about cannabis every day, it’s handy to have so many synonyms to choose from so things don’t get repetitive. But I still have internal debates over terminology.

When I’m being generic, do I call marijuana a substance? That’s too jargony. A plant? That’s too sanitized. A drug? That too loaded.

Then there are insider terms that I feel obliged to share with readers because they’re becoming part of mainstream language as legalization spreads. But just as I convinced my editor to let me start using “budtender,” I got requests to call these dispensary workers “patient consultants” so as not to equate medical marijuana providers with bartenders.

Of course, not every word choice in the press is guided by that level of introspection.

I’m convinced “pot” only became popular in newspaper headlines because it’s short. And in print, every letter counts.

Now that digital news is king, headlines are often being influenced by search engine optimization and Facebook shareability. So research might suggest that “cannabis” works best to generate traffic for business articles while “weed” is best for culture pieces.

Those issues have to be taken into consideration if we want people to find our stories. But I’ll continue to be thoughtful about my word choice on this beat, and I encourage other reporters to do the same.


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