We have a lot of words for marijuana. Bud, kush, and weed are just three. You can tell a lot about a thing by the language that surrounds it. Bud is an obvious reference to cannabis flowers. Kush is a reference to both a strain and a geographic point of origin for that strain. Weed is a 70s derivative of “grass”, which became popular in the 1960s. Then there’s “reefer”. Why is weed called “reefer”? What does it mean and where did it come from?
What Is the “Reefer”?
Chances are good that you’ve heard the term “reefer” about cannabis. It can be applied to weed as a whole, but it’s more usually associated with a marijuana cigarette, also called a joint. These are usually smaller joints but can refer to anything rolled with rolling papers. Using a cigar wrapper transforms it into a blunt.
Note that “reefer” can also refer to a wide range of other things completely unrelated to cannabis or cannabis culture. For instance, a refrigerated trailer towed by an 18-wheeler is called a “reefer”. There is also a fashion connection with the reefer jacket.
Where Did the Slang Term “Reefer” Come From?
One point of origin is in the 1930s counterculture. As authorities were beginning to demonize it, people were forced to sell it illegally. Enterprising salespeople would stand outside bars, music halls, and theaters, selling tiny joints just big enough to give you a slight buzz. These were often referred to as “reefers”.
The term also appears to have entered English by way of Spanish. It may be an Anglicization of the word “grifa”, which originally referred to marijuana in Spanish, not specifically to joints. The Spanish introduced marijuana to Mexico in the 1800s in the hopes of creating industrial hemp production, and they had many words for cannabis at the time, including marijuana, marihuana, mariguana, and grifa.
“Reefer” first appeared in print in the 1930s when TIME magazine published an article vilifying cannabis. TIME explained that the leaves of the marijuana plant could be dried, ground, and rolled into a reefer cigarette that might be bootlegged under the name “reefer”.
Around the same time, a propaganda film came out. “Reefer Madness” had a dramatic, powerful effect on public perception.
What Was the Impact of “Reefer Madness”?
The film “Reefer Madness” was released in 1936. It was one film in a series of government-funded propaganda movies aimed at curbing the use of marijuana and it demonized cannabis and cannabis users. The original title was “Tell Your Children”, and it focused on the horrors that stemmed from using marijuana.
The plot is hard to follow, but it focuses on innocent high school students who are lured into smoking marijuana. Eventually, they are involved in a hit-and-run accident. That devolves into rape, manslaughter, and even suicide, with hallucinations and insanity thrown in for good measure. Overall, the portrayal was one of excess, addiction, and eventual insanity for users.
The film sparked public outrage and Congress enacted the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which was designed to regulate the sale of cannabis. This was the first time in the history of the nation that cannabis was taxed and regulated.
How Did Music and Culture Popularize the Term “Reefer”?
The term “reefer” wasn’t just used by cannabis smokers and the movie industry. It was popularized throughout all layers of society. A few years before the release of “Reefer Madness”, Cab Calloway published the song, “Reefer Man” as the popularity of the drug vied with the perception authorities wanted to create surrounding it. However, this was far from the only such instance. Other songs that referenced reefer included The Man from Harlem, Here Comes the Man, Light Up, Texas Tea Party, Jack I’m Mellow, Weed Smoker’s Dream, All the Jive Is Gone, Reefer Song, and plenty of others.
The wide range of jazz and blues artists using the term reefer was particularly potent in making the word part of American slang, as well as cementing it within cannabis culture. Even today, decades later, reefer continues to conjure images of cannabis. Admittedly, many of those are stigmatic thanks to the government’s anti-cannabis efforts and years of criminalization.