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Understanding marijuana vs. cannabis

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From pop culture and news headlines to local shops and the internet, “marijuana” and “cannabis” are often used interchangeably—but these terms technically refer to different things. Start Talking Now can help you understand the difference and be a reliable source to guide discussions with your teen about the risks of using these substances.

What’s the difference?

Cannabis refers to all products derived from the Cannabis sativa plant, including those that mainly produce cannabidiol (CBD) and those that produce tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).[1] Marijuana refers to the dried flowers, leaves, stems, and seeds of the cannabis plant, which contain high amounts of THC.[2], [3]

THC is the substance primarily responsible for making a person feel high. It can also impair memory, coordination, learning, and judgement.[4] Using THC products can increase the probability of negative or unpredictable reactions, like panic attacks, temporary psychotic episodes, hallucinations, extreme paranoia, and suicidal thoughts in both teens and adults.[5] Some research also suggests that use in adolescence, particularly frequent or heavy use, is associated with the development of anxiety disorder in young adulthood.[6] Young people, whose brains are still developing, are more vulnerable to these negative impacts. In Washington state most teens who enter drug treatment programs report marijuana as the main drug they use. For more information, here are some facts about teens and marijuana.

Where we’ve been

In the 1800s, there were no legal restrictions on “cannabis,” and it was widely used in the United States to make things like clothing and medicine.[7] In the early 1900s, there was an influx of Mexican immigrants coming to the United States, and some brought with them the practice of smoking cannabis recreationally.

Following this period, anti-cannabis prohibitionists began to use the term “marijuana”—similar to the word in Spanish for cannabis, “marihuana.” This tactic tied cannabis to anti-immigrant sentiments and racist stereotypes of people from the Mexican immigrant and African American communities.

In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was enacted. Following the creation of this tax law, Black people were around three times more likely to be arrested for violating narcotic drug laws than White people who violated the law. And Mexican immigrants were nearly nine times more likely to be arrested for the same charge.

The War on Drugs took anti-cannabis sentiments to a new level and cannabis was added to the list of Schedule I drugs, which outlawed its use. This came with harsher penalties for people who used it and restrictions on its use in research.

Where we are

The impacts of this discriminatory history are still felt today. To address this, many people have advocated for the widespread adoption of the term “cannabis” instead of “marijuana,” including advocacy groups in Washington state.

In 2022, the Washington State Legislature passed House Bill 1210 which replaced the term “marijuana” with “cannabis” in all state laws—noting the discriminatory origins of the term “marijuana” in the U.S., and that “cannabis” is a more accurate term for the range of recreational products available today in Washington State.

Here to help

Start Talking Now is here to provide you with accurate, easy-to-understand information that can help when it comes to talking with your teen about the impacts of using marijuana and other high-THC cannabis products. To ensure our information remains current, Start Talking Now is updating the website to align with House Bill 1210—while still providing effective ways to discuss these products with the youth in your life.

It is important to remember the term “marijuana” is still used among many people in Washington, including individuals and communities that speak Spanish. Teens may not understand the difference between cannabis and marijuana, so Start Talking Now will continue to use words they are familiar with to help parents and caregivers clearly communicate the risks that can come with using these products.  

Whether you call it marijuana, cannabis, pot, or weed—any product with high THC levels can impact the development and well-being of the teens in your life. Learn more and access helpful resources on how to have effective conversations with your teens about marijuana, alcohol, and other drugs.