I started working at High Times as a proofreader in 2007. My friend Natasha a.k.a. Vaporella was the Managing Editor, and she knew I was looking for some extra cheddar. I was so stoked to have a reason to visit the storied offices of High Times at 419 Park Avenue in New York City, where the staff smoked weed every day on the fire escape, and didn’t trust anyone who wouldn’t smoke with them. You had to fail a drug test to work at High Times, the story went. They were all suspicious of anyone new, but Natasha’s word was gold, and once we’d all gotten stoned together at a staff retreat in the Catskills, I felt like part of the family.
The bulk of my work duties was laid out in the High Times style guide—a document designed to help writers, editors, and proofreaders get a grip on the magazine’s iconic style, preserving the varied voices of its writers while remaining consistent in things like punctuation and capitalization.
There was a lot to look out for in every issue. Abbreviations, fraction styles in recipes, numerals vs. numbers, scientific names. For instance, at the time, indica and sativa were always italicized. I combed through the tiny print of dozens of pages with my red pen, marking up every straight apostrophe or single quotation mark I found. But the thing that appealed to my word geekiness the most was the vocabulary section of the guide. It was a window into the heart of stoner culture, from the magazine that had largely defined it for decades: long-haired (adj.) vs. longhair (n.); root-bound was hyphenated. NFT stood for nutrient film technique (whoa). Bong hit was always two words, while bongload and bongwater were one.
I made a joke about bongwater being one word on a Zoom call with a scholastic director recently, and it didn’t go over so well. The slightly bemused expression on the professor’s face indicated that it would be wise for me to stick to using academic language during our conversation. I managed to stay on topic after my little gaffe, and we had a very interesting talk about cannabis and her work, but it got me thinking about the words we use for weed.
When I was proofreading HT all those years ago, it was still acceptable to talk about smoking dope, in some cases (it was usually an older writer reminiscing about the ‘60s). We used the marijuana waaaay more often than we did cannabis. And pot, not weed, was the go-to term for the plant. That all may seem outdated now, but it’s important to preserve that vocabulary, and the cultural knowledge that goes along with it.
There are hundreds of incredible words to describe weed, and many that have been weaponized against the plant and the community. Reefer, grass, ganja, chronic. Devil’s lettuce, sinsemilla, wacky tabacky. Zaza, trees, cheeba, catnip, skunk. It’s a rich and wild and wonderful lexicon in which every term links to a significant moment or thing—like the origin story of 420.
Russ Belville wrote an interesting rant about the use of the word marijuana several years ago, pushing back against the idea that the word is racist. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some variation of that statement from well-meaning people in the drug reform movement,” Belville wrote. “But not only is that claim invalid, it’s rhetorically dangerous to use.”
“The argument is that marijuana conjures up so many negative frames to some people (Cheech & Chong, munchies, Vietnam, hippies, liberals) that we’re better off using cannabis, which in the United States won’t carry that baggage. Unfortunately, militantly insisting on using cannabis over marijuana presents its own set of rhetorical dangers.”
It’s a great piece, and I encourage you to read the whole thing. Belville uses both terms to refer to the plant; his distinction is that he grows cannabis, and smokes marijuana. Which, honestly, I love! Especially because my own name is the Anglicized version of marijuana (it’s an old family name, I just got lucky).
Preserving our wacky weed vocabulary is important to me because I love words and their history, and also because I loathe when cannabis brands run by venture capitalists try to distance themselves from the stoner community. I wrote about one such company, which went by the name GEN!US (lol) for Rolling Stone. Part of the mission of GEN!US, according to a press release announcing the opening of a flagship store on Melrose Avenue, was to “veer away from stoner culture” as a “luxury” cannabis brand. The company went bust after the tech bros in charge blew through $164 million in funding from a Russian oligarch (who ended up dead, it’s a wild story and you should read the whole thing).
Annnyway, that veering away from stoner culture didn’t work out. It never will! Along with the medical marijuana movement and drug-reform activists, stoner culture is the reason we have legal cannabis in 19 states. Of course, we need to use academic language to be taken seriously by lawmakers, but we’ve got a million other ways to talk about the plant, and it doesn’t always need to be so dang humorless. I have a great time doing it on my mostly silly, sometimes serious podcast Weed + Grub with Mike Glazer! And remember, when you’re texting your roomie to freshen up the bongwater for tonight’s sesh, that it’s one word, not two. IYKYK.