Public relations partners launch joint business venture


As medical marijuana cardholders and advocates for adult recreational use of cannabis, Roberta King and Dottie Rhodes felt it was high time for a new career challenge.

On Aug. 24, the pair — who have more than 50 years of combined experience in public relations, strategy, branding, marketing and design — opened Canna Communication, a PR firm that serves businesses in the cannabis industry.

“We are in the business of helping growers, transporters, labs, security, processors and support services — like legal for cannabis and accountants for cannabis,” Rhodes said. “We want to work with all those industries that are just as passionate about growing their cannabis business as we are.”

The idea for the agency dates back to last November. King had been contemplating leaving her job as vice president of PR and marketing at Grand Rapids Community Foundation for a while. One day while she was driving, she listened to an NPR report about the fifth annual Marijuana Business Conference and Expo in Las Vegas.

“It was like, ‘That’s it!’ This is what I want to be in,” she said. “I pulled over to the side of the road and called a friend and said this was the idea I’d been waiting for. I went home and told my husband. I’m a big idea person, so I bought the Canna Communication domain name and just started jumping in, learning and finding out about the business.”

She knew she didn’t want to carry the load alone, so she started telling friends selectively.

“A month and a half or so later, I was having lunch with Dottie, and I said, ‘You know, I’ve been thinking about this thing, this idea: a communication, branding and marketing firm for the cannabis industry,’” King said.

She said Rhodes’ face “lit up” after hearing the idea.

“She jumped in and was like, ‘Let’s do it,’” King said. “I said, ‘Yeah, we should be partners.’”

King said Rhodes, over the course of 25 years, had built exactly the expertise King wanted in a business partner: strategic direction, graphic design, publishing, branding, project management and client relations.

“I’ve always been conscious of what my shortcomings are,” King said. “My shortcoming, having worked in nonprofits my whole life, was business. I needed a partner who knew something about business and running an agency.”

Most recently, Rhodes had owned a design studio, Plenty, from which she had parted ways just weeks previous after the West Michigan firm, Fairly Painless Advertising, bought it from her.

Rhodes said the idea coincided with her passion, sparked long ago, for the healing and pleasurable properties of cannabis.

“Cannabis has the ability to heal and allow people to have improved quality of life,” she said. “It’s a natural alternative to pharmaceuticals.”

She said throughout her adulthood, she has watched people — such as a friend’s mother who was dying of breast cancer — experience symptomatic relief from their illnesses using cannabis, and even healing in some cases.

“I had a woman from Tennessee call me recently,” Rhodes said. “Her business partner had a child a year-and-a-half ago who had complications from epilepsy. They had to do emergency surgery, and the prognosis was bleak. The woman and her husband said, ‘We’re not going to give up.’

“So through CBD oil (cannabidiol, made from hemp), they were able to give him appropriate dosages on his tongue. Now, he is a healthy, 1½-year-old who is walking and learning to talk. He’ll always need assisted living, but he’s not experiencing seizures. The CBD oil doesn’t have THC in it, which is the chemical responsible for the high, so there are no psychoactive effects.”

The Epilepsy Foundation of Michigan and the National Epilepsy Foundation both advocate for cannabis and medical marijuana as safe, effective treatments for epilepsy and have FAQs on their websites about it and host video chats and educational events on the topic.

King and Rhodes said other health organizations, such as the American Heart Association, tend to be more conservative. But they believe advocacy eventually will help foster acceptance.

“Once you start talking to people about cannabis, everybody knows somebody who has to use it for CBD (corticobasal degeneration), chemotherapy, gastric issues, neurological,” King said. “THC does amazing things for people with neurological issues and with CBD. And for people who just use it to enjoy it because it makes them a better person.”

Rhodes described decriminalization and legalization as “social justice” issues, as well as health issues.

“Nationally, there is an incredibly disproportionate amount of people of color arrested related to cannabis compared to Caucasians,” Rhodes said, citing a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan report that found that between 2001 and 2010, “blacks were 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.”

“We are on the right side of history with this; that’s why we feel so impassioned,” Rhodes said.

“By decriminalization and all adult recreational use legalized, that’s the only way to stop that issue from happening,” King said. “We’re lucky to live in a city like Grand Rapids with the decriminalization of marijuana, thanks to the effort of Tami VandenBerg and others like her.”

Currently, King is collecting signatures to get the legalization of marijuana on the ballot for November 2018.

“The recreational adult-use states are closing in,” she said. “As goes California, so goes the rest of the country. Now, California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., have it. It would be great if Michigan was the first state in the Midwest to have recreational adult-use marijuana.”

Meantime, Canna Communications will go where the business is. King quit her job at the Community Foundation on Aug. 18 and has been mobile since.

“We are completely virtual — out of Grand Rapids and my house in Muskegon,” King said. “In a year’s time, maybe we’ll have office space in Grand Rapids.

“What’s really going to trigger where we end up if we open office space is which communities would be open to cannabis, and where will they be?”

There’s a high concentration of dispensaries in Lansing, some in Ann Arbor, a couple in Kalamazoo. Any dispensaries that popped up after marijuana was decriminalized in Grand Rapids were quickly shut down because the city didn’t pass a local ordinance to allow dispensaries.

The partners have not yet secured any clients but are in talks with several.

“Since I started planning this, we’ve built a lot of relationships,” King said. “We‘re closer than I thought we would be at this stage. A few people were just waiting for us to hit the ‘go’ button.

“It’s been a very interesting and validating experience. Before the business launched, we were telling select people as we went through the months what we were planning to do. Sometimes, I would say, ‘It’s a high-growth industry,’ and sometimes I would say, ‘Yeah, we’re going into the cannabis industry.’ Much to my amazement, nobody told me I was out of my mind or going to hell.”

Rhodes added: “What we’re doing is really about helping people.”

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