Don't be fooled by all the Instagram posts prominently featuring dank, trichome-laden nugs: Social media is not a pot-friendly platform. Now local businesses are finding that out the hard way, losing profile pages overnight that they've spent months building up followings for.
Over the past few months, Facebook and Instagram have both shut down the accounts of Uncle Ike's, Cannabis City, and Dockside Cannabis. While those businesses advertised the sale of marijuana on their pages, which is technically a violation of Facebook's advertising policy, Facebook has also censored pages that don't. Canna Law Blog, which, according to a blog post, "studiously delete[s] and ban[s] anyone who tries to use our Facebook page as a forum for selling anything, including marijuana," says Facebook has also banned its promoted pages and posts (although its Facebook profile is still up).
"Having these pages shut down does hurt us," said Maria Moses, co-owner of Dockside. "It's been really difficult with such a limited budget. It's hard to get the word out there. As a small local company, we've been relying on social media."
Like pretty much everything related to legalization, this issue wasn't one that people anticipated. Pot businesses assumed that, as legal enterprises, they would be allowed to have a Facebook page like any other business. But Facebook specifically prohibits ads or pages that "promote or facilitate the sale or consumption of illegal or recreational drugs, tobacco products, or drug or tobacco paraphernalia." And no exception is made for businesses in states where marijuana use is legal.
Canna Law Blog notes that Instagram banned the hashtag "weed" from its site in 2013 and continues to shut down accounts that share images of pot. And the censorship goes beyond social media. In a post on the company's blog, Dockside's Moses notes, "Instagram deleted us (but Tommy Chong, Dope magazine and others are still there), Google ads are repeatedly denied (but plenty of off-label diet remedies fill feeds on a daily basis, with pictures of scantily clad women), and even print ads are rejected because of the USPS's latest memo on marijuana advertising."
Kayli Nugent, who handles social media for Dockside, said, "Twitter and Facebook are the best way we can let our customers know what is in stock at the moment. For example, while we may receive a shipment of Blue Dream this evening, there is no way to communicate that information to our customers without the use of social media."
So far though, Facebook and Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) are the only two social-media platforms that regularly ban legal marijuana businesses. (You can still get up-to-the-minute information on Blue Dream specials via Twitter.) But Facebook and Instagram are vital to social-media marketing, and their crackdown on pot businesses is a significant hurdle to the success of the industry.
Do cannabusinesses have any recourse? I asked Jonah Tacoma, who founded Dabstars, the marijuana world's biggest social-media powerhouse, about how much hope businesses can have in the appeals process when their Facebook pages are taken down. "You're submitting to this amorphous company," he said. "Someone's out there hitting accept or decline on those appeals. Most people don't get their page back." Dabstars did, however. Tacoma said his page was taken down at one point, but he successfully appealed the decision by arguing that, as a marketing and branding company, Dabstars was not directly involved with the manufacture and sale of marijuana. Dabstars currently has 1,340,594 likes on Facebook.
However, Facebook, Tacoma says, is much more amenable to pot than Instagram, where he is used to being shut down. "People understand that their favorite page is going to be gone and they're going to have to find you again," he said. His original Instagram account had more than 90,000 followers when it was shut down a month ago, but "Dabstars 2.0" was already back to 20,000 within a week. "We're like the raves that used to jump location to location," he said, adding that the widespread recognition of the #Dabstars hashtag always brought followers back to his new account after a shutdown.
Facebook didn't respond to an e-mailed request for comment, and they don't list a media contact phone number. Their only input on the matter comes from Tim Rathschmidt, a former Facebook spokesperson, who talked to the Huffington Post in January of 2014, when this issue first arose in Colorado. He said that ads promoting legalization and discussion of marijuana policy were fine, but anything to do with its sale or consumption was a no go, because pot laws were too varied worldwide.
However, as Moses pointed out, "They have the technology, obviously, for advertising, to show ads to people only in certain states, or to people who are above 21 years old. It's not like these pages and ads are out there for children in Nebraska to see. If they wanna lock it down, they can lock it down." Even more baffling, she said, was Facebook's supposed commitment to democratic ideals: "I find it sad and maybe ironic. One of the great promises of social media was as a way to democratize society with access to information. I get it, they're private companies and they can do what they want. But why block Dockside, and others like us, when what we are doing is perfectly legal?"
It's a great question. Now if only we could get an answer.