Ganja Origin: Exploring the Slang Terms for Marijuana


There are so many terms for marijuana that it’s pretty hard to keep up. Somehow, though, you usually know when someone is talking about pot. 

That said, we don’t always understand the origins of terms for marijuana because they become so commonplace that they’re taken for granted. Digging deeper into things is always a good idea, and we’re here to do just that with some of the terms for marijuana. 

More specifically, we’re going to explore the word ganja origin, followed by a couple of others. 

Ganja Origin: Where Does the Word Come From?

The origins of this term run a lot deeper than you may have expected. There are a number of historical factors that come into play if you want to have a full understanding of the word “ganja” and what stands for. 

We’re going to unpack that all for you here. Let’s get started:

Let’s Start in India

When a person thinks “ganja,” they usually go through a number of associations, none of which dealing with Hinduism or British colonialism. That is until you look back a few thousand years.

Hinduism actually regards cannabis as a sacred plant, and many religious practices and ceremonies are conducted with the use of it. It’s likely that the components of the plant and their effects brought on a spiritual association. Hinduism is an ancient religion, dating back over 4000 years.

India’s caste system has also had an effect on the way that language is used and passed down, which, in turn, has affected our receiving of the word “ganja,” but we’ll get to that.

The Indian caste system places holy or religious men at the top of the social structure. They land up above businessmen and kings. They are referred to as the Brahmin caste.

Brahmins were versed in Sanskrit, a holy language which was generally regarded as only theirs to use. The lower members of the caste system spoke Hindi. We’re using the past tense here because the structure of things has changed slightly in the modern day, and the lines are a little more blurred as to who speaks what and how they stand in Indian society. 

The point is, the Sanskrit word for cannabis, being a religious plant, was used with a lot of importance in the Hindu religion.

British Control in India and Jamaica

The British exerted colonial control over India, to different degrees, from around 1505 all of the way up until 1948.

We don’t have time in this lifetime or the next to get into all of the politics and aftermath of their colonial rule, so we won’t even try here. If you’re interested in learning more about colonialism, it would be wise to do some serious reading on the topic.

The British colonized Jamaica in the late 1600s. They formally claimed it as an English colony in 1655, although Spain didn’t cede the territory to them until 1670.

Christopher Columbus is actually regarded as the first European to get to Jamaica, claiming it for Spain. From the time that these people landed until 1833 when England outlawed slavery, African slaves were brought to Jamaica and worked in sugar and rubber plantations. 

There is little mention of what happened to the native people living in Jamaica before Europeans came, although it’s known that they were treated so poorly by the Spanish and affected by disease that almost each native Jamaican had passed away within 100 years. 

Outlawing Slavery and the Need for Work

In the absence of slavery, England needed people to work on their farms and plantations in Jamaica. The recruited 40,000 people from India, mostly indentured servants to work in Jamaica. 

Still, many African descendants lived and worked in Jamaica at the time. It may be surprising to note that marijuana is not a native plant to Jamaica. In fact, ganja was first introduced to Jamaicans when Indian indentured servants brought it in the mid 19th century. 


Most of us are well-acquainted with the term ganja because of its connection to Rastafarianism and, largely, Bob Marley. 

Ganja became a common thing for field-workers to smoke while on the job in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was commonplace in Jamaica up until the mid-20th century as the social climate began to shift, and ganja took on a whole new meaning. 

Rastafarianism was started in 1935 when Leonard P. Howell preached the importance of Haile Selassie. Howell preached that the racial hierarchy would be flipped and that blacks would soon have racial superiority over whites. 

This, obviously, was an attractive theme for many of the people living in Jamaica who, even though slavery had been made illegal, still lived lives that were heavily oppressed by whites. Ganja, as we know, is a large part of many Rastafarian religious practices. 

Rastafarianism came just before the beginnings of the Black Power movement in the United States, which used marijuana as an anti-establishment message. This sentiment was shared by many Rastafarians in Jamaica, and marijuana penalties were heavily tightened in the 60s. 

Those restrictions have since loosened up, with marijuana being far less damaging to one’s criminal record now. 

There you have it! That’s the history of “Ganja.”

The Term “Reefer”

The term “reefer” is another one that could be dug into. The word “reef” was used as a verb in the 1850s for sailors who were pulling on a rope to adjust their mast. 

Sailors, in large part, were members of the “underworld” as it was called then. In other words, the people who weren’t affluent or deemed respectable. Those were also the circles that marijuana was being used in. 

Some people suggest that the word “reefer” was used for marijuana because a joint looks like a rope, and you pull it to get smoke out. This is similar to how you “reef” (pull) a rope to achieve the desired effect in sailing. 

Look for some more slang terms to dig into? Read more here to learn more.

Ganja in the Modern Day

There’s a lot of history surrounding the ganja origin. There’s probably a lot more that you could learn about Hinduism and ganja dating back thousands of years. 

There’s a lot to keep up on in the modern day, too. If you’re interested in learning more about marijuana in 2019, visit our site for the information you need.