Elizabeth Michael is well positioned to be the top communications pro for the emerging cannabis industry in Arkansas, and her first message is simple.
Don’t call it marijuana.
“It’s racist,” she said over tea a couple of weeks ago at Nexus in downtown Little Rock. “The preferred term is cannabis, and I learned that right away.” Her husband’s cannabis banking business aside, she used cannabinoid pain topicals after breaking an ankle last year and testifies to their effectiveness.
So even if the legal term in Arkansas is “medical marijuana,” as in the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission, Michael is sticking with cannabis. The state has licensed five cultivation companies and 32 dispensaries to supply the state’s thousands of patients with medical cannabis certifications in the wake of a 2016 popular vote legalizing medicinal use and enshrining the word “marijuana” in the state Constitution.
But Michael, who teamed up with Martin Thoma of Thoma Thoma to create Bud Agency, the marketing and PR firm devoted to the new industry, makes a strong case for cannabis, as a word and as medicine. First, it is the plant’s actual name, its scientific genus.
Next, the term marijuana, or “marihuana,” as it was rendered a century ago, has a ton of historical baggage.
A Business Insider article last year headlined “The racist origins of marijuana prohibition” reviewed the racist rhetoric that dominated the “Reefer Madness” era of the 1930s, when the first anti-cannabis laws arose in the U.S., and the particular use of the word was traced in a paper by Alan Piper in a 2005 academic journal, Sino-Platonic Papers.
“The word marijuana, together with the use of herbal cannabis as an intoxicant, is consistently identified as coming to the USA from Mexico, being brought there by migrant workers,” Piper wrote.
The chief of what was then the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, adopted “marihuana” as his rallying cry. Anslinger, of course, got his wish, and cannabis is still against federal law today, even though dozens of states have legalized medicinal or recreational use.
Judge for yourself what prejudices Anslinger conveyed in this quotation: “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”
► Licensed Marijuana Cultivators in Arkansas, with investors ranked by ownership stake.
No matter what you call it, in Arkansas the plant is medicine now, and Bud is determined to fight lingering bias against it. Michael and Thoma announced the company’s launch at an Arkansas Cannabis Industry Association conference Feb. 28 in Little Rock, a gathering filled with displays for companies like salve and oil producer Buffalo Co., the testing service Steep Hill Arkansas and insurance and compliance consultants Growbrite Risk Management.
“Martin and I liked the name Bud because it has several levels,” Michael said. “We’re your buddy, we’re cultivating something new in a growing industry, and ‘bud’ has a meaning, I think, that’s related to cannabis.” (She and her interviewer laugh for 20 seconds.)
“My clients are ACIA, Steep Hill Arkansas, Abaca, and others, and with Thoma I’m hoping to get a jump on cannabis marketing.”
Michael’s husband, lawyer and entrepreneur Dan Roda, is co-founder and chief legal officer of Abaca (formerly MediPays), a banking tech company for the cannabis industry and other “underbanked and nontraditional industries.”
Abaca is progressing toward a $1.3 million investment goal and has more than a dozen clients, Michael said, “including almost all the state cultivators.”
One battle that Michael and Thoma have already joined is against legislation in the Arkansas General Assembly that would make cannabis advertising and marketing illegal, and ban health care symbols from any communication or billboards.
“It just seems wrong, and counterproductive, to restrict businesses from trying to reach customers,” Michael said.