Marijuana vs. Marihuana: What’s the Difference?

by Stu Waters,

It’s common to see both “marijuana” and “marihuana” used in the cannabis industry. 

This often leads to confusion. Is one spelling correct? Are both acceptable? Are they two different words entirely?

This uncertainty is one of the reasons why many prefer to use the botanical term cannabis, which traces its etymology all the way back to Herodotus, who famously recorded its use among Scythian tribespeople in the 4th century BC.

But the word marijuana has a much shorter history, entering the English language in the late 19th century and becoming common in the 1930s. It was during that time that these two variant spellings entered the popular lexicon.

The Origins of the Word Marijuana

Marijuana owes its origins to Mexican Spanish, which explains why the “j” is pronounced the Spanish way. When the US Federal government passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, it used an alternative spelling that simplified pronunciation for people unfamiliar with the Spanish language.

This had the additional effect of making the newly scheduled drug appear dangerous and foreign. The 1930s were a divisive time for racial relations in the United States, and minority populations made up the vast majority of cannabis consumers at the time.

Today, most people prefer the original Spanish spelling for several reasons:

  • It provides distance from the negative, Reefer Madness-inspired fear-mongering of the 1930s.
  • It celebrates Mexican-American heritage, which has been intertwined with cannabis ever since California became the focal point of the counterculture movement of the 1960s.
  • Hispanic culture and the Spanish language have gained widespread acceptance and popularity in the last century. Americans today are far less likely to mispronounce marijuana than they were almost 100 years ago.

Why Is Marihuana Still Used Sometimes?

While marijuana is currently the favored spelling, it’s not uncommon to see marihuana used in specific contexts. In particular, state and government agencies may choose the latter spelling when drafting proposals and laws concerning cannabis.

The reason is that marihuana still exists on the books as the spelling codified in the tax act of 1937. This establishes a legal precedent to use the same word, spelled the same way, for all future laws to prevent ambiguity.

Some state governments adopted the definition of marijuana as described in 1937 and wrote it into their Public Health Codes. They typically used whatever spelling was considered correct at the time, which leaves the term marihuana enshrined in the legal system with that particular spelling.

If a state wanted to change the legal spelling of the word used in its statutes, it would need to pass a legislative act that codifies that change. Writing, proposing, and passing new legislation is a difficult and time-consuming process, and lawmakers just don’t see a justifiable reason to do it in this case.

What About Cannabis Industry Terminology?

You might find people in the cannabis industry using marihuana to refer to non-psychoactive industrial hemp and marijuana to refer to consumption-ready cannabis. This essentially turns the two variant spellings into two different words that are pronounced the same way.

This non-formal distinction between the two terms is not popular. The fact that both words sound exactly the same creates confusion. Hemp and cannabis are perfectly suitable alternative terms that sound nothing like one another.

In everyday use, marijuana typically describes the dried leaves and flowering tops of the cannabis plant, intended for consumption by smoking. Cannabis has a wider usage, as the term can include other products made from the cannabis plant, such as hash oil or cannabis tinctures. 

This is why “marijuana products” might mean something different than “cannabis products.” Laws that regulate the use of these products have to be extremely specific to prevent the general public, police officers, and judges from misunderstanding them.

This distinction follows generally accepted rules used for botanical products and extracts. Using a plant’s Latin botanical name is the best way to unambiguously refer to that particular species and exclude all others.