With Arkansas’ medical marijuana industry just a few months – if not weeks – away from finally providing products to patients, public relations veterans Elizabeth Michael and Martin Thoma hope to profit by educating those in and out of a market they believe will create “thousands of jobs” and generate millions of dollars in tax revenue.
Michael and Thoma on Friday (March 1) officially announced the opening of their Little Rock-based Bud Agency, although they’ve been working more than a year to “deliver industry-specific advertising and marketing” to people and businesses trying to get in on the ground floor of Arkansas’ newest industry.
Arkansas voters in 2016 approved the sale of medical marijuana. After more than two years of fits and starts to create a regulatory framework for the voter-approved plan, all five permits for cannabis cultivation facilities to grow medical marijuana have been handed out. On Jan. 9 the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Board approved a recommendation to award licenses for 32 medical marijuana dispensary locations across Arkansas, but those awards could face legal challenges.
Thoma has more than 30 years of marketing and advertising experience, is the founding principal of Little Rock-based marketing firm Thoma Thoma, and is author of “Branding Like the Big Boys.” Michael has more than 10 years of marketing experience, including recent work with the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Association, and the Arkansas Cannabis Industry Association. She also spent several months in Colorado observing the marijuana industry in one of the first states to fully legalize the drug.
“Arkansas has been slow with its implementation of medical cannabis, but we can hope that the State’s deliberation will yield a predictable, reliable ecosystem that meets the needs of all players involved – from cultivators and dispensaries to providers and patients,” Thoma noted in a statement to Talk Business & Politics. “The industry is finally getting its feet under it with the cultivator and dispensary certifications. The State should give this budding industry a chance to develop now – create the thousands of jobs, millions of dollars in taxes and significant patient benefits that it’s designed to do.”
An early Bud Agency client is Abaca, which began as MediPays, and provides a closed-loop, cashless payment system to medical marijuana dispensaries, cultivators and processors. Abaca works with banks and other financial companies to meet federal and state regulations in handling money from the marijuana industry.
Michael said it is “not a surprise to me that it’s taken so long for Arkansas to implement the program,” adding that Legislators and state officials had a “learning curve about cannabis.” Part of the learning curve includes pushing back against those in leadership positions who did not support medical marijuana and may still believe it a societal harm.
“That’s one of our main goals with (Bud Agency) is to focus on education for our clients … and eliminating the implicit bias” against marijuana, Michael said.
Spending time in Colorado helped identify many best practices that could help in Arkansas, Michael said.
“Being there (Colorado) in the most mature industry in the country was really exciting. We’re struggling with things in Arkansas that they’ve already figured out there,” she said.
Part of the struggle includes reacting to proposed legislation that would essentially ban advertising and marketing by companies in the medical marijuana industry. Senate Bill 441, which is set for a March 5 hearing in the Senate’s Agriculture, Forestry & Economic Development Committee, notes: “An individual or entity shall not advertise, publicize, promote, or market through broadcasting, online services, print services, or billboards medical marijuana, the use of medical marijuana, or services associated with medical marijuana.” The bill also would ban the use of any “symbol that is commonly associated with the practice of medicine, the practice of pharmacy, or health care in general.”
Michael said they are “rallying the troops” to oppose the bill.
“I don’t think we should limit any industry’s ability to reach its consumers, especially one like this that needs so much education,” Michael said.
Thoma said Legislators should avoid micromanaging the fledgling industry and instead trust the Medical Marijuana Commission to govern the industry based on more than two years of debate, policymaking and public input.
“The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission already did this work. It went through thoughtful deliberations, public comment, discussion and debate to develop the rules governing the state’s cannabis industry. These rules were subject to legislative review. They’re being implemented now. It’s a bad time to throw a wet blanket over an embryonic industry that the state’s voters have asked for and thousands of patients are already certified and waiting for.”