The Latin American Cannabis Landscape – Part Four: Culture

The Latin American Cannabis Landscape – Part Four: Culture


This Latam series has provided a landscape of the region, outlined its economics and covered the medical market. Now it’s time to follow cannabis etiquette and ‘puff, puff pass’ it over to cover Latin American culture and speak the language of the locals.

In the regulated market, cannabis is the preferred word, whereas marijuana, or marihuana, was one of the main words on the street in the illicit market. Just to be clear, while marijuana is a rather universal term used around the globe, you’re also likely to hear words like “hierba”, “marimba” or “mota” in the Latin American region.

Further tracing the origins of the word, marijuana, brings us back to Latin America. There are numerous theories about the linguistic evolution of the word. One classic tale is about two common female Spanish names, Maria y Juana. In easy Spanglish that reads, marijuana, and in plain English that’s the Mary Jane so many love.

However, these names became tools exploited for racist gains. Alongside migrational flows, the potency of discrimination increased around the border and language was used to target certain communities.

Another theory that was later used to propagate a negative image of cannabis stems from the Aztecs. In their language, Nahuatl, the word for cannabis, “mallihuan”, meant prisoner. Harry Anslinger, a notorious U.S. prohibitionist, was a key proponent of this theory.

Doesn’t seem like its a mere coincidence given the 20th-century context of criminalizing and demonizing cannabis.

Now in the 21st century, using the word cannabis provides a sense of verbal liberation from years of prohibition. In times of illegality, saying marijuana was often an oral tool to discriminate and historically situate. As the term generated politically induced meanings that targeted marginalized communities, the shift from illicit to licit brought with it the shift from marijuana to cannabis.

One notable community that has made linguistic choices as a means of social transformation are the Rastafaris through their language, Dread Talk. Born and bred in Jamaica, Dread Talk symbolically distances Rastas from embodying historical implications of injustice and oppression.

For example, changing the word to ‘banana’ to ‘freenana’ in order to ‘free’ the negative connotation of ‘ban’ in banana. A classic example of Dread Talk that most people know is that Rastas tend to use the word ‘herb’ instead of marijuana or cannabis.

Many people also stereotypically associate Rastas and cannabis use. It is widespread to connect the iconic image of a cannabis leaf colored in a three-tone rainbow of red, green and yellow with Rastafaris. However, this representation has fed stigmatizations and mislead perceptions of the purposes of cannabis use.

In fact, stigma is one cultural implication that continues to hinder the region, more broadly.

Across Latin America, cannabis has been used for spiritual reasons for centuries, which is distinct from the historically propagated image of ‘stoners.’

In the case of Rastafaris, herb is religiously consumed. This is integral to their identity. Beyond the spiritual uses of the plant, consumption has also served as a means of protest against outside forces, or a symbolic action to reject the system.

Meanwhile, the system in Jamaica, and across the region, is quickly changing around cannabis policy. As the contemporary context shifts towards forms of legalization, the politics of the drug war still lingers, however.

Countries and communities are still facing the ramifications of years of organized crime and violent deaths. In some places, there continue to be efforts to combat drug trafficking, arms smuggling, corruption, money laundering and other effects of the drug war.

It is necessary to not downplay the potency of the drug war. As much as a formal, regulated market is alive, there are still informal, unregulated markets still thriving. This directly feeds into the multiple layers that outline the Latin American cannabis context.

As the Latin American landscape changes, in the short term, Panama will be welcoming its first cannabis conference February 12-13. In the long term, we will be watching the region’s vibrant culture carving out space on the global stage.

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