• Councillor Shawn Cleary says 'marijuana' is a racist word that should not be used.
  • Cannabis is currently illegal in Canada but Justin Trudeau may repeal the law.

A Canadian politician has urged people to stop using the term 'marijuana' in reference to the drug cannabis branding it 'racist'. Halifax councillor Shawn Cleary took to twitter to warn against "demonising" Latin Americans.

The liberal politician claimed that a police officer had alerted him to the racially sensitive history of the word, most commonly used to refer to the psychoactive substance. After conducting his own research, he concluded that it was a prejudicial term.

His argument rests on the history of cannabis criminalisation in the US, which took place in the early part of the 20th century. The demonisation of the drug and its ensuing prohibition was borne out of a desire to marginalise new arrivals from Latin America, who liked to smoke "maiguana".

The resulting legislation referred to cannabis as "marijuana" in a bid to emphasise that it was an intrinsically Latin recreational substance.

"Marijuana was used to demonise Mexicans," Cleary said in a tweet. "Given US political climate, let's do what we can to not perpetuate racism."

He added: "I'm learning lots now as Chair of the Municipal Working Group on Cannabis or what I refer to as the Weed Committee [winky face emoji]."

Cleary's proposals met with scorn from some on social media. Fellow councillor Matt Whitman said: "Only in Canada could you smoke it but not say it."

Cannabis is currently illegal in the Commonwealth nation but prime minister Justin Trudeau has launched a task force to explore the possibility of reversing the classification. The drug is increasingly being sold over the counter in parts of the US.

Woman smoking marijuana
A woman smokes a joint during a march in Brazil YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images

In an interview with CBC on 26 October, Cleary stressed the importance of the words used to describe cannabis, saying: "We need to actually have conversations, have dialogue, and talk about these things. By doing that we're actually increasing the amount of understanding and interest in history.

"These are teaching moments. They are opportunities for us to go and learn stuff and to find out more about the history of the world around us."

Is 'marijuana' a racist term?

The US National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators passed a resolution calling for the decriminalisation of cannabis earlier this year. They also delved into the history of the term 'marijuana'.

The resolution read: "During the 1920s and 1930s, when it was first penalised in various states, cannabis use was portrayed as a cultural vice of Mexican immigrants to the United States, and racist and xenophobic politicians and government officials used cannabis prohibition specifically to target and criminalise Mexican-American culture and incarcerate Mexican-Americans," the document stated.

"The racist politicians who first criminalised cannabis used the term 'marijuana' ... to refer to it precisely because they wanted to underscore that it was a Latino, particularly Mexican, 'vice'."