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What Is ‘Mary Jane’ and Why Is It Slang for Weed?

Jordan McKenzie

Written by: Jordan McKenzie

Updated on December 28, 2023

What Is ‘Mary Jane’ and Why Is It Slang for Weed?

Pot, weed, bud – these are just a few of the nicknames for marijuana. However, there’s another one that you’ve probably heard: Mary Jane. Why is Mary Jane slang for weed? Where did this particular nickname come from?

Historical Background of Cannabis

What’s the Mary Jane/weed connection? Let’s take a closer look at the historical background and origins of marijuana.

Much of the world has used marijuana in one form or another for thousands of years, although it went by different names. In England and the colonies that would eventually become the United States, it was called “hemp”. The hemp plant was used to make rope, cloth, and other textile products.

However, in the 1930s, the term “marijuana” became more widespread. This is an Anglicization of the Spanish word “marihuana”, which was pronounced with a throaty j/g sound. Some historians feel that it was actually the name that sparked fear over the plant, even though it had been in widespread use in the United States for a long time.

It’s a good example of how fear of the unknown can be intentionally used to demonize something familiar. The change in public perception was the key to getting cannabis outlawed, a central tenet in the oral crusade that surrounded Prohibition and the later ban on cannabis.

What’s in a name? In addition to Mary Jane, marijuana (or hemp if you prefer) has been known by many other nicknames, some fun and others less amusing, including:

  • Weed
  • Smoke
  • Ganja
  • The devil’s lettuce
  • Reefer
  • Green
  • Pot
  • Grass
  • Dope
  • Herb
  • Bud
  • Skunk
  • Aunt Mary
  • 420

Depending on where you live, you may recognize other names for cannabis. For instance, brown, chronic, alfalfa, dank, and ditch weed are also regional names for cannabis.

Why ‘Mary Jane’ Became Slang for Weed?

Why do they call weed Mary Jane? There are many theories about how Mary Jane became slang for weed, but few direct connections. One of the most promising theories connects it to the Spanish language. Marijuana (itself a slang term) sounds a lot like the Spanish name Maria Juana. The English translation of Maria Juana is Mary Jane.

But why did the name Mary Jane spread so rapidly in the United States? It was largely due to the growing prohibition against cannabis, which was called marijuana by people like Harry Anslinger and Randolph Hearst in their efforts to stamp out its use. Marijuana users were forced to use code words when talking about it to protect themselves from the police, and Mary Jane was one of the first such codes.

Mary Jane might have died out in the 1960s and 70s when “grass”, “weed”, and other nicknames became popular. However, Rick James released his hit song Mary Jane in 1978. Ostensibly, it was about his love for a woman named Mary Jane, but people in the counterculture and familiar with the world of cannabis knew differently. Tom Petty had a similar hit in the 1990s – “Last Dance with Mary Jane”.

Is Mary Jane Still Used to Describe Cannabis?

While Mary Jane has enjoyed a long run as a slang term for marijuana, it may be dying out. Fewer people use it today than other terms, including weed and pot. Newer slang terms are also coming to prominence, including boom. It’s all part of the way language evolves as culture changes over time.

At some point, Mary Jane may come back to prominence. However, most people around the world will understand what you’re talking about if you call it Mary Jane or MJ. So, despite some decline in usage, it’s still well-understood to refer to cannabis.

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Jordan McKenzie
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