Restrictive social-media policies have cut off one of the most important advertising routes for marijuana businesses and forced the creation of a new social space, MassRoots.
Although social attitudes and laws surrounding marijuana have changed, social-media rules have yet to evolve. While a patchwork of states has approved forms of medical and recreational use, federal law still prohibits marijuana, prompting social-media companies to restrict advertising and accounts, even from state-sanctioned firms.
Isaac Dietrich, seeing that establishment social-media companies shun cannabis users, helped create MassRoots, based in Denver, to fill the gap.
“[Mainstream social media] quite frankly don't understand the cannabis industry,” said Dietrich, co-founder and CEO of MassRoots. “They view all marijuana-related content as if it’s heroin, as if it’s another drug that’s illegal under federal law, a drug they potentially could get in trouble over.”
Every day, marijuana businesses have their Facebook and Instagram accounts deleted.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Nadeem Al-Hasan, one of two founders of Baked Bros, a company that makes and sells edible marijuana products through Yavapai Herbal Services in Prescott Valley. “My Instagram account has been shut down eight times in the last two months. They even shut down my personal account.”
Instagram’s policies prohibit “buying or selling illegal or prescription drugs (even if it’s legal in your region), as well as promoting recreational drug use.” In 2013, it tried to eliminate the hashtag #weed, but it continues to proliferate.
Facebook, which owns Instagram, allows Baked Bros to post images and articles about marijuana but won’t let the company advertise. Facebook’s policy states: “Ads must not promote the sale or use of the following: Illegal, prescription, or recreational drugs.” It does allow advertising alcohol if age and country targeting are in place.
An e-mail to Instagram requesting information on its policies was not answered by press time.
Al-Hasan said he doesn’t know why his account was deleted and can’t get a response from Instagram.
“I’m not even sure what put us on their radar,” he said. “I don’t know if someone reported us or if we are actually violating their terms.
“There’s an appeal form you can send to Instagram. I have sent it over 800 times. I was successful one time and my account was reactivated, only to be deleted again a week later.”
As Al-Hasan pointed out a stark disparity between how the rules are enforced against businesses and individuals. A quick search on either site yields thousands of marijuana-related posts by individual users.
“During the time when my account was deleted, almost every dispensary in [Prescott] Valley had their account deleted,” Al-Hasan said. “Ultimately, I think that Facebook and Instagram are just looking into the accounts that are making money and shutting them down. The people who are just posting pictures of weed, the potheads, they’re leaving them up.”
Losing a major marketing channel like Instagram is a major blow to marijuana businesses, especially small startups.
“It’s extremely detrimental to my business,” Al-Hasan said. “I had more than 10,000 followers that I had accumulated since 2014 before my account was deleted.”
Instagram has been the social media of choice for most marijuana businesses, and Al-Hasan said it is the platform that previously provided the most exposure for his business.
“We just received two awards this weekend, and it’s a bummer because I can’t announce them on the social media platform I want to, the one where I get the most impressions,” he said.
Instead, Al-Hasan published a Facebook post about his company's Cann Awards for Best New Infused Product – Southwest and Most Popular Infused Product – Southwest.
Amy Donohue of Hybrid Social, a marketing consulting firm specializing in cannabis businesses, helps businesses "re-imagine" their relationship with social media and find new outlets for promotion.
“People need to get really creative,” she said. “They need to learn what they’re supposed to do and what they’re not supposed to do in order for their brands not to get damaged by getting banned all the time.”
Donohue said that repeatedly having to rebuild a firm's presence on social media diminishes brand following.
“If you had 5,000 followers, and then your account gets deleted and you post a link, ‘Hey here’s our new page,’ maybe 3,500 people will follow you back,” she said. “People are going to get tired of re-following you.”
Rather than fighting restrictive policies on other platforms, entrepreneurs may be better off focusing on cannabis-specific sites, such as MassRoots, Donohue said.
“It’s a case of entrepreneurs being spread so thin, they’re trying to do everything at once, when they should be asking themselves, ‘Where would my efforts be best directed?’” Donohue said. “MassRoots is the largest social network for the cannabis industry. They have to go where their audience is.”
Dietrich said his own experiences inspired MassRoots, which allows marijuana-related advertising and semi-anonymous posts from users who want to connect with friends and other marijuana users in their areas.
“I was smoking with my friend in 2013, and we realized that out of all our friends who smoked cannabis, almost none of them posted about it on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter,” Dietrich said. “Their bosses and family members are right next to them on these networks. I wouldn't want my grandma to see me taking a bong rip every time she logs onto Facebook.
“We wanted to create a semi-anonymous environment where people felt comfortable talking about cannabis and their experiences with the plant.”
Dietrich believes that traditional social media companies simply don’t yet understand marijuana or marijuana users. This lack of understanding creates an opportunity for his company, he said.
“We are specialized in this content,” Dietrich said. “We’ve been at it for more than two and a half years now. We’re very proactive in ensuring that there is no illegal activity going on in our network: no drug dealing, no underage kids, no other drugs.
“We have the knowledge and the experience to know what’s OK and what’s not...There’s a significant difference between illegal activity and what is occurring in a regulated market.”
MassRoots has had to face significant hurdles, including getting banned, then reinstated, in the Apple App Store.
“In November 2014, the same day that Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., voted to legalize recreational use of cannabis, we got a call from the App Store, that they didn’t want a cannabis social network available to users,” Dietrich said. “So they kicked MassRoots out of the App Store, completely blacklisted us, and created a rule that all cannabis social applications were prohibited. This really only applied to us because we were the only one. That could’ve been the death of our company.”
Users went nuts, sending more than 10,000 e-mails to Apple. Many prominent industry groups, including the National Cannabis Industry Association and The ArcView Group, a cannabis-focused investment group, also got involved, writing a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, stating that Apple’s policy was, “stifling innovation in the cannabis sector.”
Dietrich said the outpouring of support was instrumental in getting the company reinstated.
“Within a couple weeks of sending that letter, we were let back into the App Store with no conceptual changes,” Dietrich said. “We are incredibly grateful that Apple listened to the will of their users.”
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Dietrich says the story of his company demonstrates that tech firms aren't that progressive and illustrates how public scrutiny can get waped policies changed.
“Silicon Valley tech companies are often held up as some of the most socially progressive institutions in the country,” Dietrich said. “But in reality, they often promote some of the most prohibitionist policies out there. Once they realize that their users, the community, are OK with cannabis content occurring in a regulated market, they often change their policies.”
Dietrich sees a brighter future for marijuana businesses online.
“As legalization continues to spread, as the stigma around cannabis content continues to abate, I think you’ll see these larger tech companies start to rethink and revise their policies to allow more cannabis-related content," he said, "maybe even cannabis-related advertising.”