Facebook has recently launched an aggressive campaign to rid its sites of some cannabis-related material, deleting or suspending dozens of accounts operated by marijuana businesses, most of which had operated for years without so much as a warning about offensive material.
“We tried to log into Instagram, and a message said we violated their policy, but they won’t say what that violation is,” said Rick Scarpello, CEO of Incredibles, a Denver-based edible company. “I’ve written them every day, saying I’m not doing anything illegal and please reinstate my account.”
Over the last five years, social media has become essential in the movement to legalize marijuana and as an advertising tool for the industry . Large groups of pot-loving activists on the sites can be mobilized during an election or marketed to by a galaxy of startup companies.
So shutting down accounts can be a significant setback for the companies – not just dispensaries, but also ancillary businesses.
Despite the fact that it doesn’t sell marijuana, Center Mass Media, a cannabis marketing company, said it has had multiple Instagram accounts deleted.
John Ramsay, Center Mass’s CEO, said there was a direct correlation between profits and the number of followers his company has, and starting over on social media has caused a significant dip. Deleting such accounts “has a monumental impact on businesses, after you spent so much time building up a network of followers”.
Additionally, social media has become the primary resource for marijuana consumers looking for information on changes in laws, product recalls, forthcoming elections and new medical studies. “The type of posts with the highest engagement on Facebook for us has been news and information,” says Joe Hodas, chief marketing officer of Dixie Brands. “It’s not the products or partying – it’s the news that does the best for us.”
Olivia Mannix, cofounder of the Cannabrand marketing agency, said that two years ago she found a way to run banner ads for marijuana businesses on Facebook by avoiding words like “weed” and “pot” along with any pictures of the product, before Facebook cut off her ability to run any ads. Now, she said, in addition to shutting down cannabis related pages, “they’ve begun deleting the profiles of the people running the pages”. She added that one client received a note from Facebook suggesting that person see a drug counselor.
A spokesperson for Facebook declined to comment on the record about any of these cases or the specifics of their policies toward legal marijuana businesses, only offering: “These pages have been removed for violating our community standards, which outline what is and is not allowed on Facebook.”
The only mention of marijuana on Facebook’s community standards page comes under the “Regulated Goods” section, which states: “We prohibit any attempts by unauthorized dealers to purchase, sell, or trade prescription drugs, marijuana, or firearms.”
The owners of accounts that were deleted say they never engaged in selling marijuana online, and while marijuana remains federally illegal, their companies physically exist within states that have legalized marijuana in some form.
It’s also unclear why ancillary companies have lost their accounts. Stash Tagz, an apparel company that sells cannabis-themed t-shirts, said its Instagram account was deleted after it posted a meme featuring a Rastafarian Santa Claus, which did not contain any marijuana use or products.
Instagram’s guidelines are somewhat more direct than Facebook’s: “Offering sexual services, buying or selling illegal or prescription drugs (even if it’s legal in your region), as well as promoting recreational drug use is also not allowed.” Instagram did not respond to requests for comment.
Considering that both sites are loaded with marijuana posts, the sites clearly can’t remove all of them or delete all the accounts associated with pot. A search for the hashtag #weed on Instagram returns a large number of pictures featuring cannabis products, plants, and smoldering joints, though the bottom of the page reads: “Recent posts from #weed are currently hidden because the community has reported some content that may not meet Instagram’s community guidelines.”
Several theories about why accounts are being shut down are being discussed in the industry. Some say Facebook is afraid of racketeering charges from the federal government (the same reason most banks won’t touch pot money ), while others believe it is people within the industry flagging their competition’s posts and getting them shut down.
The crackdown on marijuana businesses on Facebook and Instagram could benefit marijuana-centric social media sites like Social High or MassRoots, where naysayers aren’t likely to complain about cannabis content.
“I had been advocating [for marijuana legalization] on Facebook, and noticed that friends weren’t interacting with me on the topic,” said Scott Bettano, CEO of Social High, which launched last year. “They were afraid of co-workers and family seeing them talking about it on Facebook. And that’s when I said the cannabis community needs their own social media platform where they can talk about it openly.”
Though these companies don’t exist in a social media vacuum. MassRoots, which launched in 2013 and has amassed over 775,000 users, uses Facebook and Instagram to promote its site’s content. After it collected more than 390,000 followers on Instagram within two years, Instagram pulled the MassRoots account three weeks ago. (This reporter wrote a news article for the MassRoots blog in January.)
There is concern that an industry-wide exodus from Facebook to sites like MassRoots and Social High would be crippling not just to the economics of legal weed, but also the culture.
“Social media provides the opportunity for a dialogue about cannabis, showing people that it’s normal. A lot of people still aren’t comfortable walking into a dispensary, but with social media you can create an image of a company that people can relate to and feel comfortable with their product,” said Lauren Gibbs, president of Rise Above Social Strategies, which helps marijuana companies cultivate an online presence.
Isaac Dietrich of MassRoots believes that there are policies that mainstream social media sites could implement to stay on the right side of the law when it comes to legalized marijuana.
“Alcohol companies have Instagram accounts that Instagram restricts to users that are 21 and older, and we would be more than open to those types of controls. But they don’t give us those options.” He added that MassRoots is currently only available in states that have legalized marijuana, a policy he says Instagram could implement “overnight”.
It’s possible that the wave of deleted accounts derived from a policy change regarding the companies, as many of them occurred within a matter of weeks of each other. Denver Relief Dispensary says its Facebook account was deleted two weeks ago after seven years of no incidents; the deletion was followed by the removal of its Instagram account days later.
And three weeks ago, three separate dispensaries in New Jersey lost their Facebook accounts on the same day. “We tried to take down anything we thought they objected to, like pictures or prices [of products], but we didn’t get reinstated,” said Andrew Zaleski of Breakwater Treatment and Wellness in New Jersey.
“These small businesses invest tens of thousands of dollars in building an organic following,” Dietrich said, “and that in turn drives a significant amount of business to these dispensaries. And then, all of the sudden, all of that money and time flies right out the window. It’s killing jobs and the growth of the industry, and it may well be holding back the progression of cannabis legalization in the United States. All we’re asking for is clear guidelines.”