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Does Terminology Matter? “Marijuana”, “Cannabis”, and Public Opinion

Posted by on Friday, November 1, 2019 in News, Updates.

Over the last several years, there has been a steady shift in the term people use to refer to the drug commonly known as “marijuana.” Namely, people have begun to shun “marijuana” in favor of “cannabis.”

The shift in terminology stems at least in part from the belief that the word “marijuana” conjures up various negative associations (e.g., racial biases). Champions of the change in terminology believe that the word “cannabis” carries no such baggage. By changing the word people use to refer to this drug, the theory goes, advocates hope to boost public support for reform proposals and for the people who use and supply the drug.

Importantly, however, no one has yet demonstrated that changing the terms of discourse—i.e., calling the drug “cannabis” as opposed to “marijuana”—actually has any effect on public opinion. Existing survey data provides no way test the hypothesis because those surveys do not vary the terminology in the questions they pose to respondents.

I’m proud to report that I’ve just published an article (co-authored with political scientist Cindy Kam) that explores the effects of framing on public opinion toward marijuana / cannabis legalization and the people who use / supply the drug. The article uses a novel survey experiment to test whether the choice of terms (“marijuana” versus “cannabis”) affects public opinion, both for medical use and for use more generally.

The article has just been published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE. (PLOS ONE is an open access journal, which was a big reason why we decided to publish it there.) Follow this link to view the full article:
Has the “M” word been framed? Marijuana, cannabis, and public opinion

And here is the abstract, which provides a nice preview of our findings:

Over the past two decades, a growing cadre of US states has legalized the drug commonly known as “marijuana.” But even as more states legalize the drug, proponents of reform have begun to shun the term “marijuana” in favor of the term “cannabis.” Arguing that the “M” word has been tainted and may thus dampen public support for legalization, policy advocates have championed “cannabis” as an alternative and more neutral name for the drug. Importantly, however, no one has tested whether calling the drug “cannabis” as opposed to “marijuana” actually has any effect on public opinion. Using an original survey experiment, we examine whether framing the drug as “marijuana” as opposed to “cannabis” shapes public attitudes across a range of related topics: support for legalization of the drug, moral acceptance of its use, tolerance of activities involving the drug, perceptions of the drug’s harms, and stereotypes of its users. Throughout each of our tests, we find no evidence to suggest that the public distinguishes between the terms “marijuana” and “cannabis.” We conclude with implications of our findings for debates over marijuana/cannabis policy and for framing in policy discourse more generally.


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