Facebook And Instagram's Anti-Weed Stance Frustrates Cannabis Entrepreneurs

Advertising is crucial in the success of any business — and this holds true for cannabis as well. When U.S. states started to legalize cannabis, dozens of new companies flocked to the largest social media platforms in the world, including Facebook Inc (NASDAQ: FB) and Instagram. 

They soon hit a snag. Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram weren’t keen on letting cannabis businesses promote their products on the platforms.

Although some businesses have managed to develop strategies that allow them to use social media as a tool to reach out to customers, Facebook’s anti-marijuana position extends beyond ads.

Blocking Cannabis Searches

A search on Facebook shows no results for "cannabis" or "marijuana." Interestingly, searches for "hash," "hashish," "weed" and "pot" will show marijuana-related pages. In a way, Facebook's anti-weed position only affects the official names of the plant. 

It’s an unusual approach, as blocking searches for “cannabis” and “marijuana” not only affects legally operating businesses, but also filters out government agencies that are involved in the industry, such as the California Bureau of Cannabis Control.

When contacted by Benzinga for comment on this story, a Facebook spokeswoman referred to the company's regulated goods policy.

“In our Community Standards, which are the guidelines outlining what is and is not allowed on Facebook, our regulated goods policy explains that we prohibit attempts by individuals, manufacturers, and retailers to purchase, sell or trade non-medical drugs, pharmaceutical drugs and marijuana," the spokeswoman said in an email.

"We also further explain that while some of these items are not regulated everywhere, because of the borderless nature of our community, we try to enforce our policies as consistently as possible,”

It's unclear how censoring marijuana and cannabis searches affects businesses, but there is unquestionably an impact. According to a study conducted by G/O Digital in 2014, 30 percent of those surveyed said that they checked a local business’ Facebook page several times a day before deciding to take their business there.

Some businesses found a way around the verbiage.

Jamie Cooper, the CEO and founder of Cannabiz Connection, an online platform that connects cannabis entrepreneurs, said she noticed that the search for "cannabis" on Facebook is blocked.

Cooper's company was unaffected because of the "z" in its name, she said. 

Selectivity With Marijuana Ads

Facebook's advertising policy is based on its Community Standards, but is "more stringent" and prohibits the sale or use of illegal, prescription or recreational drugs, according to the social media platform. 

While cannabis remains federally illegal, Facebook’s anti-drug policy also affects businesses that service the cannabis industry but do not interact with the plant itself.

Facebook seems to be selective with cannabis-related ads.

“Every time you submit an ad, it is reviewed by one of their team members for approval, and a lot of times it's rejected no matter what and then sometimes it isn't," said Cannabiz Connection's Cooper.

"The fact that they don't adhere to their own policy and reject ads that comply with their rules is ridiculous. I can't even begin to tell you the amount of time I have spent arguing with Facebook. It's all dependent on who reviews your ad and their personal stance on cannabis." 

Censorship Goes Beyond Search, Ads

In addition to blocking searches and aads related to cannabis businesses, Facebook can also shut down business pages altogether.

In 2016, Facebook deleted or suspended dozens of pages operated by marijuana businesses. It created a backlash, as most of the businesses had operated their pages for years.

Two years later, things haven’t changed much.

The policies affect not only Facebook, but Instagram as well. A number of industry participants complain that their Instagram accounts were deleted while other businesses continued to operate theirs.

“As an edible reviewer, I spent years using Instagram as a way to connect with the cannabis community. I gained a following of 14,000 people only to be deleted by Instagram in 2016. The deletion was devastating and made me rethink the way I connect with the community," said Alice Moon, a cannabis lifestyle entrepreneur.

Instead of focusing on Instagram, I spent 2017 going to events to build in-person connections, because you can't delete those. I want to share more on Instagram but my concern is: will I be deleted again?"

Moon saidthat while her account was deleted, others, such as dispensary operator Medmen Enterprises Inc (OTC: MMNFF)’s account, are allowed to create sponsored posts. In another example, cannabis brand Beboe’s account is verified.

The same issue was pointed out by cannabis photographer Bess Byers.

“For being such a progressive, community-oriented platform, it is disappointing to see Instagram get conservative on cannabis. We ask Instagram to please update their draconian Terms of Service to reflect changing laws."

Javier Hasse and Dustin Blitchok contributed to this report. 

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Screenshot courtesy of Facebook. 

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