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Commentary: Clearing smoke

Oklahoma Gazette chooses cannabis over marijuana.


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Nearly a year ago, just before passage of State Question 788, I wrote an article in Oklahoma Gazette about the historic demonization of cannabis and how political and industrial forces conspired to destroy the market for the plant. Many industrialists and their political allies, including major timber, agricultural and chemical interests, aligned against cannabis to protect the timber-based paper industry and cotton’s dominance in the textile market. 

In particular, major industrialists like William Randolph Hearst and Andrew Mellon stoked anti-cannabis sentiment. In Hearst’s case, traditional paper production (he owned the trees, the means of production and the newspapers themselves) was at stake. For his own part, Mellon sought to protect the market for DuPont’s new synthetic fiber, nylon. 

By the 1920s, cannabis use in the United States had increased over the previous two decades, spurred by the adoption of Prohibition in 1920 and the immigration of Mexican workers following the 1910 revolution in their home country. Many of those recent immigrants preferred cannabis to alcohol, so forces in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress began using racial coding to create negative public attitudes toward cannabis and build political power against it. 

States began passing anti-cannabis laws in 1915 and the fervor spread quickly, with a spate of similar state legislation passing over the next decade that often used racist language to get over with state representatives and white voters. The nastiness of the rhetoric was widespread, but I found a quote from an “expert witness” subpoenaed by the state legislature in Montana that seems typical of the racially coded strategy.

“When some beet field peon takes a few rares of this stuff, he thinks he has just been elected president of Mexico, so he starts to execute all his political enemies,” said Dr. Fred Ulsher during a committee hearing.

My best guess is that Ulsher never observed the use of cannabis, much less tried it. I have never seen anyone go ballistic while smoking pot. Alcohol can either magnify aggressive natures or diminish them based on individuals’ brain chemistry, but cannabis chills people out. Even sativa strains that typically foster more alert reactions do not usually elicit hyper-aggressive behavior, much less the kind of hallucinatory delusions of grandeur Ulsher described. Also, Ulsher was clearly at least as interested in the care and feeding of racism as he was in the potential negative effects of cannabis. In coining the term “marijuana,” white politicians and activists leveraged racism to satisfy their goals of eradicating cannabis as a competitive cash crop.

Of course, this was a successful strategy. Together with the propagandists who created films such as Reefer Madness and Assassin of Youth, political leaders effectively demonized cannabis, hardwiring negative attitudes for the better part of a century. The coup de grace of this movement was the 1970 Controlled Substances Act that classified cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, conferring upon it the same levels of danger and legal punishment as heroin. To this day, politicians will parrot talking points about cannabis being a “gateway drug” when no scientific data supports that notion. 

Much like the medicinal cannabis industry in Oklahoma, Oklahoma Gazette is still wrestling with the sea change in perception and use of cannabis. In our post SQ788 state, we must continually evaluate our coverage, much as we do with other social issues.  

Long-held beliefs and attitudes are falling by the wayside, and reflecting those changes rather than hanging onto dying tropes means progress for our publication, not to mention society as a whole. In this week’s issue, you will read about Gazette spring intern Nikita Lewchuk’s continuing exploration of gender identity, as well as Amo Amo singer Love Femme’s use of the gender-neutral pronouns zi and zir and Girlpool member Cleo Tucker’s hormone therapy as a trans man. As a progressive publication, we will always support our sources’ preferences for how they should be identified. In much the same way we will not refer to Jay-Z as “Mr. Carter,” we will not force people to conform to artificial rules when identifying them. 

Because the term “marijuana” has its origins in a political and public relations campaign with racist overtones, Oklahoma Gazette and its new monthly publication Extract are adopting the term “cannabis” as an official style rule for references to the plant. 

This is not a “snowflaky” act on Oklahoma Gazette’s part, nor is it any kind of capitulation to political correctness. The decision is wholly journalistic in its nature. Marijuana is a derogatory slang term that was designed to denigrate an entire community while pushing a sociopolitical agenda. Because we do not trade in this kind of language or systematic subjugation of entire groups in any other area of our coverage, we should not do so in this case, either. 

Now, we are not going to change anyone’s quotes or mess with proper names — we have neither the power nor the inclination to change the name of Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority (OMMA). If OMMA were to be inspired to become OMCA, that would be awesome, but we are not standing in judgment on a subject that could take years to resolve across the great expanse of culture. People who have called cannabis “marijuana” for several decades will likely continue to do so, and they will be quoted lovingly, accurately and without judgment. 

True progression often requires some kind of internal examination of how things are done, and if they are still valid. While Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still refers to the plant as “marijuana” on first reference, Oklahoma Gazette is pushing forward and not rewarding the behavior of bad actors in a largely discredited campaign. Henceforth, we are going with cannabis. 

  • Gazette / file
George Lang is editor-in-chief of Oklahoma Gazette and began his career at Gazette in 1994.

Opinions expressed on the commentary page, in letters to the editor and elsewhere in this newspaper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of ownership or management.

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