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Is It Offensive to Call Someone a 'Stoner'?

Some marijuana activists suggest the language used by most people to describe their movement is keeping them from being taken seriously.

Photo by Jake Kivanç

As a writer covering the weed beat, I hear about lots of quirky ideas and concerns, some of which I've affectionately characterized as "cannabispiracies."

The latest involves a backlash over words that have long been a part of the weed lexicon—"weed" being one of them.

"Can you stop using the word 'weed' and replace it with cannabis. Especially within the context of law and medicine. It sounds awful not edgy," wrote one commenter in reference to a recent story of mine about the Toronto dispensary raids in which I'd written. "In February, the MMPR program was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge, who said patients should be able to grow their own weed." Another added, "It's cannabis people… Let's be grown ups about this shit." I was informed that saying "weed" invokes a negative connotation.


Instinctively, it struck me as uptight that a word as banal as "weed"—akin, in my mind, to describing alcohol as "booze"—is now considered offensive. But a survey of activists in the cannabis community revealed there is a legitimate debate over the term, as well as words like "dope," "stoner," and "pothead."

"I say weed all the time, and people are offended," said Lisa Campbell, chairwoman of Women Grow Toronto. "Apparently words like 'weed' and 'pothead' have stigma associated with them. I like to reclaim them."

Medical cannabis patient advocate Tracy Curley, who goes by the moniker "Weed Woman Canada," said the concern over the term "weed" comes from the "Reefer Madness" prohibition era, when marijuana was dubbed "Mexican locoweed."

"That propaganda is part of our history, a long fought one," she said. Still, she personally embraces the term "stiletto stoner," and as for "pothead," she said, "I don't find 'pothead' to be any more derogatory than drinker… I know which one will get home safely at the end of the night."

Others feel much more strongly about it.

"My issue is your use of 'stoner' as a rather pejorative term, whether derogatory or not, like the words 'faggot' or 'queer,'" one reader wrote me in an email, while accusing me of "painting all enjoyers with the abuser paint brush" and setting back the legalization movement.

Vancouver-based advocate Dana Larsen, who recently gave away 2 million pot seeds on a cross-country tour, told VICE the media does often "denigrate" cannabis users with these terms.


"We don't see regular beer drinkers being called 'drunkards' or wine drinkers being called 'winos' in media stories, but cannabis users get called 'stoners' and 'potheads' regularly," he said, noting he'd prefer to be called a "cannabis enthusiast."

But he's admitted he gets heat from "purists" who object to the word "marijuana" over "cannabis." He uses both but said the former is more widely recognized.

That sentiment was echoed by Cannabis Culture owner Jodie Emery, who recently opened two fully recreational dispensaries in Toronto. She pointed to a recent Toronto Star article, in which marijuana was referred to as "dope" as offensive.

"'Dope' is a term straight from the Reefer Madness era, equivalent in ridiculousness to calling cannabis 'the reefer'."

Emery herself has likely offended people with some of the analogies she's used to describe the plight of the cannabis community.

In a recent police press conference about the dispensary raids, she responded to a complaint about dispensaries breaking the law by referencing civil rights icon Rosa Parks, who refused to give her seat on a public bus to a white guy. Emery's husband, Marc, was later quoted in an article comparing the dispensary raids to Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when many Jews were moved to concentration camps. When asked by VICE if those comparisons were not insulting, Emery said, "I want to make it very clear that I'm not comparing the experience of the two oppressed groups, but I am comparing the strategy used—that of civil disobedience." She said her husband was likening the Toronto police's "smash-and-grab" tactics to the government-sanctioned strategies used during Kristallnacht.

On a personal level, she said she's been called a "pothead in pearls" and "weed princess," neither of which bother her.

A few years ago, when cannabis culture was still very much underground, this debate probably would have been laughable. But as the movement gains momentum, conversations we'd once dismiss as "stoner talk" are likely to become a part of the mainstream.

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.