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Medical Cannabis? Medical Marijuana? What's the Difference?

Medical Cannabis? Medical Marijuana? What's the Difference?

By Narinder Dhaliwal, MA | January 3, 2018
Program Manager, ETR

What’s in a name? Is it medical marijuana that’s supported in 29 states plus the District of Columbia? Or should we be calling it medical cannabis?

There are different perspectives on these language choices, and often people hold their opinions strongly. As the legal uses of cannabis become more widespread, I expect the language to continue evolving. In the meantime, here are some of the arguments for using one term or the other.

Perspective 1: "Cannabis is the Correct Term"

  • Cannabis is the scientific name for the plant. Therefore, it is “correct,” “real,” “official.”
  • Cannabis refers to the entire plant, which can be the basis of many useful products that have nothing to do with medical care or mind-altering experiences. These include fabric, food and drink (made from seeds and not psychoactive), ropes, paper, skin products and more.
  • Cannabis, being a more scientific term, keeps the focus on the benefits of medical use, and provides distance from recreational use. It is a better choice for the medical cannabis industry.
  • Marijuana is a slang term with an offensive and racist history and should not be used. It became popular in the early 20th century because the term had been heard among immigrant Mexican laborers. Its use in journalism and legislation at the time contributed to the demonization of these and other immigrant populations. (By the way, there are other perspectives, along with some questions about whether this account of the term’s history is accurate.)

“Marijuana is the Term People Understand”

  • Many people don’t know any other term for the plant.
  • Marijuana is a more accessible and “friendly” term. Cannabis is more formal and can be off-putting.
  • Marijuana is a more accurate term. It refers only to the flowers and leaves of the plant, which are the parts used for medical and recreational purposes. Cannabis refers to the entire plant.

What Works for You?

Like other terms in the worlds of health education, research and promotion, your own choice of phrase might depend most upon the setting in which you are using it. In general, I am now using “cannabis” for both medical and recreational products. However, when we’re producing health education materials here at ETR, we are more likely to use “marijuana” at the moment because it is more easily understood by students, clients and patients.

I’ve been working closely with Tribal Nations in California on issues of tobacco and secondhand smoke exposure. As I’ve watched the process unfold in this arena, I hear the term “cannabis” being used more than “marijuana.” Their newly formed association exploring the regulation of cannabis on tribal lands is the California Native American Cannabis Association (C-NACA).

The most important thing is to communicate clearly with your audience. What term will work better with the people you are serving? Will different terms be appropriate for different individuals or audiences?

I’m interested in the ways you are working with this language. Even as we talk more freely about cannabis in a multitude of different settings, the need for sound prevention education remains vital. What language do you want to see in health education materials? Which term should we be using in community and school prevention programs?


Narinder Dhaliwal, MA, is the Project Director of ETR’s Tobacco Education Clearinghouse (TECC) and California’s Clean Air Project (CCAP). She works with tobacco control programs throughout California’s 61 health jurisdictions. You can reach her at


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