By John Schroyer
The marijuana industry is facing a growing challenge on the social media front, and there’s no resolution in sight.
Both Facebook and Instagram are closing marijuana-related business accounts without warning and seemingly at random, cutting off key connections companies have with their customers.
And the two social media giants are not just targeting retailers and businesses that touch the plant: Companies that provide services to the industry and those that focus on marijuana consumers have been caught up in the crackdown, too.
All told, at least 100 marijuana companies have been affected over the past month – and possibly much more than that, according to various estimates.
Cannabis businesses are now scrambling to figure out what will put them at risk of losing their accounts, and many are developing contingency plans in case they are targeted.
“It’s a huge problem because we use that account to showcase businesses as well as to organize followers,” said Isaac Dietrich, co-founder and CEO of the cannabis-centric social media site MassRoots, which lost its Instagram account last month. (Instagram is owned by Facebook.)
Although Dietrich has since started a new account for MassRoots, he lost several years’ worth of photos and followers.
“By losing access to that account, that’s prohibiting us from contacting those 300,000 followers” that MassRoots previously had on Instagram, Dietrich said. “We’ve reached out to Instagram multiple times, and they have not been returning our calls.”
A spokeswoman for Facebook said in an email to Marijuana Business Daily that the company doesn’t permit any content that “promotes the sale of marijuana regardless of state or country. This includes marijuana dispensaries.” Non-promotional marijuana-related content, however, is allowed.
But the spokeswoman didn’t have any figures regarding how many cannabis-related accounts have been closed. Dietrich said he’s heard of about 100 accounts that have been shuttered, though the overall total is likely significantly higher.
Arizona-based consultant Sara Gullickson estimated she’s heard of about 50 dispensary Facebook pages alone being closed down in at least eight states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington State (and that doesn’t include recreational retailers).
The closures seem somewhat random, as most companies haven’t been affected. No one knows exactly why certain businesses are being targeted – or who is next.
In many cases, one company has been affected but its competitors have not.
And in some cases, a business has had one of its accounts shut down but not others. For example, the well-known Harborside Health Center in Oakland, California, is nowhere to be seen on Facebook, but a page for its Portland, Oregon, dispensary is still up. Its main Facebook page, along with its Instagram account, were originally closed over a year ago, on Jan. 15, 2015. The company re-started accounts on both platforms, however, and built its online following back up over the past year.
“I think the policy is set at a high level, but actual enforcement of the policy is left up to the ground troops, but what that does is it creates an unequal playing field,” Dietrich said. “Weedmaps also had their Instagram account shut down, but Leafly still has theirs and so far, they’ve been left unaffected.”
So how are companies responding?
Some have simply started new Facebook or Instagram accounts with slightly different names. Others are circulating online petitions (such as this one and this one) calling on Facebook to change its policy.
A dispensary in New Jersey, Compassionate Sciences Alternative Treatment Center, was able to get its Facebook page restored recently after editing it and filing an appeal, but an executive with the dispensary said he’s still not certain why the page was taken down in the first place.
“We went ahead and edited our site and re-submitted it with an appeal, and we got put back on,” said Michael Nelson, the general manager of Compassionate Sciences. “The only thing we did to change the site was we took off all photographs and all reference to pricing, and we never got a confirmation as to whether one of those items or both were what they cared about. That was our kind of stab in the dark as to what may have bothered them.”
Consultant Gullickson advised following a similar strategy.
“Make sure you’re not promoting any sales, take down pictures of flower, take ‘dispensary’ out of the title of the page. That seems to have worked for a couple of our groups,” Gullickson said. “For companies, if their pages are shut down, it’s best to be vocal” and file a complaint or appeal.
But it’s not necessarily clear that this will work with Instagram, in particular because it has closed accounts of companies that don’t even handle marijuana, such as MassRoots.
“They don’t even sell cannabis,” said a Denver-area marijuana businessman who asked to remain anonymous, but confirmed he had lost his Instagram and Facebook accounts as well. “They’re not licensed in any way. All they’re doing is sharing pictures of other peoples’ cannabis experiences.”
Colorado-based Dixie Brands – which produces edibles – is another company that doesn’t fit within the retail mold. Most of its social media posts have more to do with industry news than deals for consumers, said Joe Hodas, the company’s chief marketing officer. And yet it lost its Instagram account a few weeks ago, and on Friday, its Facebook page was closed.
“I didn’t feel like we were violating any terms and conditions,” Hodas said. “If there was something we could have changed, we would have done so.”
There may be a upside for some companies that can fill the void, though. Businesses that have had their accounts closed are increasingly gravitating towards social media sites focused solely on cannabis users, such as MassRoots.
“We’re going to encourage others in the industry to just embrace MassRoots,” said Dixie’s Hodas. “Let’s go where we’re wanted.”
John Schroyer can be reached at email@example.com
Correction: This story originally reported that Harborside Health Center’s Facebook and Instagram accounts were taken down in January 2015, but failed to note that the dispensary re-started both accounts after they were shuttered.