Study: Terminology Doesn’t Influence Public’s Perception of Cannabis

Use of the term ‘cannabis’ instead of ‘marijuana’ does not influence the public’s perception of the plant or their attitudes, according to data published in the journal PLOS One.

Researchers affiliated with Vanderbilt University in Tennessee surveyed a nationally representative sampling of adults regarding the terms ‘marijuana or ‘cannabis.’ Specifically, authors examined whether framing the substance as ‘marijuana’ as opposed to ‘cannabis’ shapes public attitudes across a range of related topics: support for legalization of the drug, moral acceptance of its use, tolerance of activities involving the drug, perceptions of the drug’s harms, and stereotypes of its users.

Investigators reported: “We find no support for the notion that changing the name of the drug from ‘marijuana’ to ‘cannabis’ affects public opinion on the drug or the policies governing it. Whether asked about legalization of the drug, the moral acceptability of its use, tolerance for activities involving the drug, the harmfulness of its use, or the traits of its users—and whether they are prompted to think about medical use or use more generally—respondents offered similar opinions whether we called the drug ‘marijuana’ or ‘cannabis.’

By contrast, authors did report that the general public possesses more favorable opinions of the substance “when told it is for medical versus unspecified purposes.” That distinction is evident is national polls, which show greater public support for medicalization (93 percent: Quinnipiac, 2019) over adult-use legalization (66 percent: Gallup, 2019).

Commenting on the study’s results, NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said: Changing the hearts and minds of the public with regard to marijuana has always been about substance, not terminology. Reformers are winning the legalization debate on the strength of our core arguments — namely, the fact that legalization and regulation is better for public health and safety than is criminalization — and not because of any particular change in the lexicon surrounding the cannabis plant.”

Full text of the study, “Has the ‘M’ word been framed? Marijuana, cannabis, and public opinion,” is online here.