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Language Matters: Cannabis Resources from Rutgers Libraries

Cannabis plantAdult-use cannabis sales set to begin in New Jersey,” says the headline from the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission, issued a few weeks ago. The start date is April 21, 2022, nearly a year and a half later after the citizens of the Garden State voted on the legalization of marijuana on the November ballot in 2020.

Aimed to serve Rutgers faculty, staff, and students, as well as the public, a Marijuana research guide was compiled by Rutgers librarians back in 2020, listing related scholarly, government, business, legal, and popular resources, each under separate tabs. Read more about the guide’s beginning, process, and continuing evolution, which is updated frequently by subject specialists.

The term “marijuana” was intentionally kept to promote the guide for public consumption (pun intended) with no negative connotations. However, I personally feel responsible and a little bit guilty about it. As we all agree, “cannabis” is the preferred term, due to the controversial history and etymology, including implicit racism affecting cannabis research to date in the former.

Here is a little bit of history in addiction studies. Sparing no minorities, National Prohibition in the early 20th century gained traction via the language, just like the Temperance Movement, with strong judgment quickly and explicitly expressed in various official and popular publications.

After Prohibition ended, it looked like Harry Anslinger, the unforgiving tyrant of the Federal Narcotics Bureau (the predecessor of DEA), had a need to find a new threat to American ways. Conflating race, music and drug use, he discovered cannabis as the new enemy of the public. The deal was sealed by his 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, a year after the movie Reefer Madness hit the young and unassuming high school population in the face. The propaganda morality tale, which was meant to be educational, sounds more like a satire today, but marijuana was doomed for decades.

The jury is still out whether cannabis is addictive or not, even though “cannabis use disorder” is listed in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) under Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders. Cannabis stigmas, although slightly diminishing, are present as structural, social, and micro stigmas throughout times and communities.

Cover artSimilarly to the discourse about addiction, it will take awhile to get rid of bias and destigmatize cannabis. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) suggests simple changes in the language related to substance use disorders to avoid talking about addictions, albeit often unintentionally, in a stigmatizing manner. Perhaps we need a code switch on cannabis to turn off stigmatization.

Until then, we’ll see how New Jersey grows up to this new challenge.