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AdWeek: Why PR Pros Should Choose Their Words Wisely When It Comes to Cannabis

By Laura Braden

Words matter.

Professionals in the public relations industry take that phrase to heart because it’s the driving force behind our ability to tell compelling stories that move targeted audiences to feel or act in a way beneficial to our clients.

And nowhere is that sentiment more prevalent than in the emerging legal cannabis industry.

Twenty-four states and Washington D.C. have already legalized the medical useof cannabis. Alaska, Colorado, Washington State, Oregon and Washington D.C. have also legalized its social use – with at least 10 states considering the same path this year. The majority of Americans now support legalization, and America’s 2015 cannabis sales surpassed Dasani, Oreos and Girl Scout cookies. In fact, a recent report by New Frontier and ArcView Market Research estimated the industry would grow to $7.1 billion in 2016 – a 26 percent growth over the previous year, largely driven by adult social use.

With growth comes opportunity, and every day, new PR, marketing and advertising firms are jumping into an industry that has the look and feel of a startup – with the baggage only an 8,000-year-old plant can produce.

The following terms and slang have negative connotations that reinforce the very fabrications propagated to sell prohibition in the first place. It’s not a matter of removing them entirely from your vocabulary, but it’s critically important that those new to cannabis understand the history, context and usage when working with clients.

Marijuana: After the Mexican Revolution in the 1900s, America predictably saw an uptick in immigration from Mexico, and one of the cultures/customs they brought with them was the use of cannabis as a relaxant and medicine. It’s important to note that Americans were already familiar with the term “cannabis” because it was widely available at the time. The term “marijuana” was injectedinto the national conversation as a way to stigmatize the plant’s association with “disruptive Mexicans.” Much like San Francisco’s ban on opium as a way to control Chinese immigration, marijuana became a code word for anti-immigration sentiment. This story is largely forgotten today, and the use of the word remains widespread. But spend any time with this industry, and you’ll quickly realize that most people prefer using the Latinate name, cannabis, as much as possible.

Weed: Cannabis isn’t a weed invading your garden or ruining your rose bushes. At all. It’s a beautiful plant with countless strains that each produces a unique leaf design, shape, smell, taste and experience. In fact, many growers plant vegetables and fruits alongside their cannabis to maximize land resources and output.

Stoner: One of my favorite Bill-Maher-tirades focused on the need for “regular” Americans to come out of the cannabis closet… and until that happens, untrue stigmas will persist. One of the stigmas that tops this list? The media’s portrayal of a dopey stoner that’s too lazy to contribute to society. In reality, today’s cannabis users include grandmothers with chronic pain, veterans suffering from PTSD and young children with seizures. And all cannabis products aren’t created alike – some will help you sleep and relax while others make you feel quite alert and creative. I compare it to exercise – some types like yoga and swimming help joints, posture and alignment while Crossfit, Zumba and cycling classes help metabolism and cardiovascular health. Until the optics of what a cannabis user looks like changes, the stigma (and the federal government’s proclivity to declassify) will persist.

Recreational Use: The term “recreational” annoys many in the industry because it doesn’t depict the actual use of cannabis. Going to Disneyland is recreational. Cannabis can heighten nature, food and concerts. It can help you reconnect with your spouse, and it can cause useful epiphanies on old personal traumas holding you back. Virtually no one refers to himself or herself as a recreational drinker because its applications are social. While the effects of cannabis are in stark contrast to alcohol, the verbiage is similar.

User: This term, which I’ve used several times throughout this piece, is the most problematic in my opinion because it makes most people think of illegal drugs and addiction. Do we call a vegan a user of vegetables? Is someone that enjoys craft beer a user of alcohol? It’s a slippery slope, and while the terms “patient” and “advocate” are more ideal, neither are generalized enough for the entire community. The jury is still out so be mindful with your client’s messaging.

Words matter because, as Frank Luntz loves to say, “80 percent of our life is emotion and only 20 percent is intellect.” Even the smallest shift – using “prevention and wellness” versus “treatment” – can drastically alter the way someone engages with your agenda, product or campaign.

And while this practice can be used for the ultimate in orchestrated spin, it’s also a critical exercise in getting to the heart of the industry. For cannabis, the truth is that prohibition has prevented millions of Americans from gaining safe access to a plant that could help everything from arthritis and depression to Crohn’s disease and anxiety.

Bottom line? Legalization and declassification of cannabis are likely in our lifetime. As we move into a commercialized and regulated world, it’s important – now more than ever – that cannabis receives its fair due in the public.

And that starts with the language we use to describe it.


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