People who sell medical and recreational cannabis in states where it’s legal have become accustomed to seeing their social media pages go dark unexpectedly. Selling or using cannabis for any reason is still federally illegal, and companies like Facebook, Google, Instagram, and Apple remain wary of being held liable for the pot content they allow users to post and promote.
But in the effort to prove they are not enabling the sale or promoting the recreational use of cannabis, Facebook and Google are also haphazardly censoring promotions for all kinds of other marijuana-related content, including news stories about racial disparities in pot arrests, links to sites selling legal paraphernalia, ads for TV shows and books about cannabis, and pages that provide information about the law. BuzzFeed News also found that small businesses seem to be disproportionately affected by inconsistencies in the enforcement of these policies, while larger and more mainstream companies advertising the same content remain unaffected.
A few weeks ago, prominent Denver cannabis law firm Vicente Sederberg posted a link to a Colorado Public Radio story following up on a story initially reported by BuzzFeed News, about a state report showing that after Colorado legalized recreational use in 2012, marijuana arrests decreased among white adolescents but dramatically increased among blacks and Latinos.
When the law firm then tried to pay to boost their post so that more people would see it, Facebook denied the request, claiming that this news item about racial disparities in law enforcement was meant to “promote illegal drugs.”
When Colorado-based cannabis brand strategist Lauren Gibbs heard about this, she was upset but not surprised. Gibbs has worked with several major cannabis brands, including Women Grow, the largest cannabis industry networking organization in the country, and Willie’s Reserve, the upcoming line of cannabis products from folk singer Willie Nelson. As part of her ongoing campaign to #EndTheSocialCannaBan, Gibbs has been trying to get Facebook to allow cannabis businesses to advertise just as alcohol companies do, with age restrictions and geo-targeting that ensure only legal consumers in legal states see the ads.
“Through all the companies I work with in cannabis, it’s abundantly clear that while Facebook and Instagram have Terms of Service that prohibit promotion of recreational cannabis use, they are applied in a profoundly inconsistent way,” Gibbs said. “I’ve even had different results from nearly identical posts, with one approved and one denied.”
Gibbs felt that blocking a law firm from sharing a news story was even more absurd than shutting down the pages of licensed dispensaries and edibles companies, and so she tried to boost a post about the fact that this had happened.
“Facebook is supposed to be a medium for free speech around political change,” she said.
That boost was also denied.
A similar thing happened last year when Katherine Grimm was set to appear in the CNN docu-series High Profits, about the marijuana industry in Colorado. Grimm’s company Clever Gent Brands creates educational materials for cannabis products, and at the time she was advocating on behalf of a few local dispensaries in Breckenridge, Colorado as they communicated with the city about permitting.
But after Grimm changed the cover photo of her personal Facebook page to a CNN-created image promoting the show, Facebook began rejecting all of her page’s requests to boost posts.
The first boosted post that Facebook blocked was an innocuous image of a zombie, which made no reference to cannabis whatsoever.
And when Grimm attempted to contact Facebook about why they had blocked her zombie meme, they told her: “We do not allow ads for [Cannabis]”.
“You could tell that they clicked a button and tagged my page with the word ‘cannabis,’ so everything was flagged as prohibited content,” Grimm said. “I get Facebook not wanting to allow ads from a dispensary promoting sales of their product. But there’s absolutely zero reason why just sharing information should be censored.”
Meanwhile, CNN was successfully using the same image to promote the show across its social media channels, as well as in more conventional advertising platforms such as billboards and print publications.
After BuzzFeed News contacted Facebook with these examples, all of the boosted posts mentioned above were allowed to go through.
“Our team processes millions of advertising images each week, and there are times we make mistakes,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an e-mail. “In the cases you shared with us, the images comply with our advertising policies. We have now approved the images and apologize for any inconvenience caused by these errors.”
Google, on the other hand, maintained that the company’s advertising policies are always consistently applied, though an occasional “bad ad” might get through and later be taken down.
For example, at the beginning of May Google suspended the AdWords account of a product called Medtainer, a medical-grade storage container that has a built-in grinder and is used by both stoners looking to grind their weed and caregivers looking to grind up pharmaceutical pills for young or elderly patients who can’t swallow them. Although selling marijuana paraphernalia is illegal on a federal level, that law specifically provides an exception for “any person authorized by local, State, or Federal law to manufacture, possess, or distribute such items.”
Medtainer had paid Google AdWords nearly $30,000 over the course of the past year, while their account was still active.
AdWords support told MedTainer that their account had been suspended because their website promoted the use of “dangerous products and services,” and because the product “can be used for grinding the recreational drugs [sic]”. However, Medtainer co-founder Shane Fairbrother pointed out that a cursory search of Google showed that the department store chain Sears appears able to advertise his product through Google AdWords, while his company is not.
Searches for “cannabis grinder” and “weed grinder” also turn up sponsored posts through Google AdWords from major companies, including Staples, Bed, Bath & Beyond, and — once again — Sears.
The only difference between Sears’ marketing language for Medtainer and the materials used by the device’s creators seems to be that Medtainer’s website includes an instructional video that refers to “herbal medicine” while a pot-like substance appears on screen — a green tea, according to Fairbrother. In the past, Medtainer has also sold a few branded products with logos from weed-friendly entities like High Times magazine.
A Google spokesperson insisted that their policies around cannabis are not affected by the size of the company placing the ad.
“Our policies are for the ads itself and the products that people are selling, not for queries, so users can still look up whatever it is that it’s related to, weed or marijuana, and we are going to show organic results. In this case, when they look for something that says, for example, ‘weed grinder,’ we identify that they are looking to buy a grinder, so we do show ads that are compliant for grinders. If these products were marketed as ‘weed grinder’ by the seller, they would not be allowed,” the spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “We interpret that search, if you’re searching for ‘weed grinder,’ we think you’re searching for ‘herb grinder’ and then we show you herb grinders.”