Over the last two months, Facebook has shut down the pages and accounts of dozens of legal marijuana dispensaries across the country. Medical marijuana dispensaries in Arizona, Nevada, and New Jersey have been affected along with recreational cannabis shops in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. Facebook has raised the bar for what is considered appropriate content for marijuana businesses to post on their respective pages. Each of these companies is properly licensed and compliant at the state and local level, just not at the federal level—which is Facebook’s legal reason for the crackdown. Facebook is now drawing the ire of the marijuana industry and joins Instagram as a social media platform “cannabusinesses” hate but need. Back in 2013, Instagram tried to stop users from being able to search #weed. While Instagram has since backed down from that foolishness, the company is still shutting down accounts of legal dispensaries and other marijuana industry participants, just like Facebook has again started doing with fervor.
While some of the New Jersey shops were able to regain their pages after filing an appeals process, a Denver store had its Instagram page closed just days after its Facebook page. The double whammy is enough to create a harsh impact on marketing outreach and sales. All of the marijuana companies on Facebook have long been aware that posting overt advertorials is forbidden. These companies are also aware that they are banned from Facebook’s self serve ad platform. Another Colorado company, Mary’s Medicinals, lost a Facebook account that they had been growing by the rules since 2013. Employee Graham Sorkin emphasized how flabbergasted the company was to find their Facebook page removed:
“We never list prices, we never put any specials or promotions. Ninety percent of what we share is educational.”
Unfortunately, it seems that the other 10% of posts still triggers Facebook’s ban hammer. Is it an advertisement if a dispensary posts a MERRY JANE strain review on Bubba Kush, which they also happen to stock in store? Is an original patient testimonial on the seizure reducing effects of CBD oil an instance of a scientific primary source or a thinly veiled advertisement? Choosing to be the judge and executioner in this matter puts Facebook on a slippery slope.
In light of the recent media backlash due to these bans, Facebook representatives recently clarified that the company does allow accounts and pages that promote the legalization of hemp, marijuana, or cannabis. It’s proven to be a fine line, and one that Facebook seems willing to cross because the line is technically officially drawn at the federal level. Over the last few years, nothing has changed in Facebook’s official policy towards prohibited goods. However, some recent internal Facebook decision undoubtedly raised the compliance bar for legal marijuana industry participants around the country - and nobody sent them the memo. Kaiser Wahab, an attorney specializing in Facebook dealings, believes that the coming 2016 Presidential election might have something to do with the internal shift in policy at Facebook. The company is likely over-censoring its constituent legal marijuana pages in case the federal government becomes more of a stickler towards marijuana come 2017.
In a world where Facebook and Instagram are still refusing to let legal marijuana companies operate on an equal playing field, it’s no wonder that social media in the cannabis industry continues to grow siloed away from the mainstream sites. Communities like MERRY JANE, MassRoots, High There, and Social High are sprouting up to create a new social media experience that is both cannabis friendly and marijuana business friendly. However, even each of these companies is still somewhat reliant on their Facebook account and the thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of cannabis-friendly followers. Facebook’s policies are unlikely to change until the federal government’s do as well. While we anticipate that slow but inevitable progress, the companies that want to keep their Facebook pages will need to be extra careful in the meantime.