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Will Styler

Associate Teaching Professor of Linguistics at UC San Diego

Director of UCSD's Computational Social Science Program

Redefining Wellness - The language of Colorado Marijuana dispensary names

This was originally posted on my blog, Notes from a Linguistic Mystic in 2013. See all posts

After my non-linguistic post a few days ago on some of the unintended consequences of legalization on people with cannabis allergies, I figured I would follow up with a linguistic post, looking at one really interesting aspect of Colorado’s recent love affair with Marijuana: Marijuana dispensary naming language.


A bit of background for those not familiar with my (rather crazy) state: Colorado, some time back, made “medical marijuana” legal, allowing any resident of the state who purchases a card from a specialized doctor (after a nominal “examination”) to purchase marijuana. Once you have a “red card”, you’re able to walk into any one of the specialized marijuana stores (called “dispensaries”) in the state of Colorado, present your card, and purchase any variety of products containing THC.

Upon the passage of Medical Marijuana in CO, dispensaries popped up everywhere. As of October 2012, there are 266 licensed dispensaries in the state of Colorado, with many more having open applications. These dispensaries popped up everywhere, filling empty lots (and, to be fair, bringing tax dollars to their communities), and in some areas, you could find 5 dispensaries in as many blocks.

Doctor or Dispensary?

As a linguist, I’ve always been impressed by the uniqueness (and in some cases humor) of the dispensary names, but the true extent to which they’ve influenced the local language was brought home to me this Christmas.

On Christmas, while opening presents with friends and family, I opened a small envelope from my lovely girlfriend. Inside were three gift cards labeled only with the name of the store, “The Wellness Center”. My first reaction, upon seeing those cards, was utter confusion. I looked over at her and asked “Did you get me a gift card to a dispensary?”.

She quickly explained that, in fact, the gift cards were for therapeutic massage from The Wellness Center in Denver (an excellent gift, and excellent place, by the way). The interesting thing is that everybody in my family, upon hearing the name of the place, all thought “dispensary” too.

So, why did 6 different people immediately think “The Wellness Center” was a dispensary, rather than a massage/acupuncture/chiropractor center?

To answer this, I did what any good linguist would do: I did an experiment to find out why this might be.

An Experiment!

First, I found two lists of Medical Marijuana Dispensaries, one standalone list and the list provided by Westword (a local counter-culture paper). I pulled the HTML of these pages down, and wrote a short python script to isolate the dispensary names into a single plaintext file. There was some duplication, both due to dispensaries having the same names and due to duplication across the two lists (although the first site seemed to be out of date and represent the initial crop, if you will, of dispensaries, many now closed).

This created The Corpus of Colorado Medical Marijuana Dispensary Names (freely available at that link for whatever use you’d like). This plaintext file then allowed me to do whatever I’d like with the dispensary names.

Once I had this data, I used WriteWords’ Word Frequency Calculator to generate a list of words in these names by frequency of occurrence, and from there, we can proceed to analysis.

Frequency explains it all

It turns out that my family wasn’t crazy after all (at least, not in that way). Looking at the word frequency listing, we see these are the top five most common words (with their number of uses in parentheses):

  1. wellness (65 times (out of 424))
  2. the (51 times)
  3. center (47 times)
  4. medical (30 times)
  5. dispensary (25 times)

Given that the word “wellness” appears in 15% of all dispensary names, and is the most frequent word by far (even surpassing “the”!), it’s no shock at all that we made that mental leap to “dispensary” given that “The Wellness Center” uses the top three most common dispensary name components.

This use is absolutely fascinating. “Wellness” (meaning ‘The state of being in good health’ for most of its 400+ year life) is now linked strongly to smoking and marijuana use. It’s a wonderful example of meaning change that this frequency of use in this context is so strong that I was left double-checking with a massage therapy provider to make sure they don’t also sell marijuana, based on name alone.

As impressive as this example is, “wellness” is not universal among dispensary names, and there are several other trends worth highlighting.

Although you can always look at the frequency list yourself, because this is a website and it’s the cool thing to do, I generated a word-cloud for the data (using WordItOut) to help visualize other common terms:

a wordcloud of the top terms used in dispensary names

Looking at the frequency of different words in the dispensary name list, aside from the obviously-pot-related names (“CannaMart”), a few other trends jump out.

First, the terms “medical” or “medicine” appear in 11% of all names, along with other variations on the “it’s medicine, we swear” theme (“meds”, “medicals”, “Rx”, Health”, “clinic”, “pharmacy”). These names are mirrored with a trend towards using a Green Cross (think Red Cross, but green) to represent dispensaries. This is to be expected given how defensive these stores have had to be of the “medicinal” status of their product.

There’s also, as one might expect, a number of nature-related terms used in these names. “Green”, “organic”, “herbs”, “natural”, “nature”, “harvest”, and so forth all figure prominently in the naming convention. And, as you might expect in Denver (the Mile-high city), there is no shortage of “mile HIGH” jokes.

Of course, there are also discreet names. Places like “Physician Preferred Products” or “Colorado Alternative Medicine” could easily pass for actual medical facilities on a tax application, and other places (“The Station”) are revealed as dispensaries only by the smell.

My personal favorite naming convention is the use of a three word name which, taken as an acronym, is “THC” (the name of the active drug in marijuana). Places like “The Herbal Center”, “The Health Center”, “Timberline Herbal Clinic”, “Tender Healing Care”, “Total Health Concepts” all play off of this acronym, and often their signs emphasize the first three letters typographically, usually coupled with the Green Cross or a Pot leaf.

A fascinating linguistic era

With the creation of medical pot laws in the state of Colorado, a previously tabooed act (dealing pot) suddenly became (semi-)legal, and an entire underground industry was pushed into the light and asked to find an image (and a marketing message). Some went the “natural” route, aiming for the organic crowd. Some, had (more than a bit of) fun with it, indulging in cheeky plays on words (Mountain High Club, The Herbal Center, Kind Pain Management), a subtle wink towards people in the know about these things. And, of course, some proprietors (likely the more cautious of the bunch) kept close to their “medical” mandate, using clinical language (and symbolism) to distance themselves from the recreational market (and perhaps in their minds, from federal prosecution).

If I find the time, it will be fascinating to follow-up in a few years to see how these names change now that Colorado has simply legalized it for all adults. All indications are that our current “medical” marijuana distribution system will be converted to recreational stores, finally able to legally sell to those recreational users who haven’t yet bought medical cards. With that elimination of the “medical” pretense, I wouldn’t be surprised to find the naming landscape change again, with the “medical” names falling off in favor of the more cutesy and “natural” names (likely with a smattering of discreet dispensaries for those whose credit card statements need be cleaner than their urine tests). Who knows, maybe future generations will someday know the word “Wellness” to mean “health” rather than “marijuana sales”.

Regardless, this is a fascinating time to be a linguist in the state of Colorado, and as we engage in this experiment with legalization, it will be fascinating to watch the evolution (and unleashing) of marijuana-related language, officially and unofficially.

Don’t worry, though, I’ll watch from a good, safe distance.