Instagram Targets Cannabis-Related Social Media Accounts

Instagram Targets Cannabis-Related Social Media Accounts

On Instagram’s release date October 6, 2010, only five states allowed medical cannabis consumption. As we approach Instagram’s eighth birthday, laws are changing. Currently, nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational cannabis, and 30 states allow medicinal use. But it’s not just the US, legalization has gone global. On July 1, 2018, Canada became the first G7 country to pass nationwide recreational laws. Even Mexico, Belize, Jamaica, Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, Belgium, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Israel, Croatia, The Czech Republic, and Australia have all passed medical, small possession, or decriminalization legislation. 

It seems the only place legalization is not happening, is on Instagram.

Today, legal cannabis producers, processors, retailers, ancillary businesses, advocates, and influencers are all targeted by Instagram’s Terms of Service. Pages are deactivated without warning, while Instagram provides zero transparency as to why. Years of work get deleted at the click of a button.

Instagram claims to foster community, while ours is targeted. The legal cannabis industry employs an estimated 165,000 people in the United States and Washington alone has generated $686 million in excise tax revenue since i502’s implementation. We aren’t a community of criminals. We are mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, entrepreneurs, and even grandparents who make a legal living while contributing to the economy.

Cannabis has been awaiting acceptance for quite some time now. We have been seeing it take the center stage and become mainstream in America. The dollar sign attached to the cannabis industry is a heavy one that’s recently pushed the pendulum of progress swinging in favor of acceptance and normalization. Cannabis is legal either medical or recreational in over half the states in the U.S.A. Netflix is featuring shows and specials around cannabis, pot leaves are covering everything, and retailers are showing up in more and more areas. Progress is happening everywhere in the real world; so why is it that social media companies refuse to join the rest of us and instead continue marijuana prohibition online? Cannabis Instagram accounts are ready for fair play.

Navigating the Grey Area of State Legalization.

One of BMF Washington's Cannabis instagram accounts is for their Liberty Reach Brand.

“BMF Washington includes disclaimers in the comments of every photo that they post in an effort to protect themselves from a shutdown.”

Instagram’s mission as copied from their terms of use is “to bring you closer to the people and things you love.” Further into the terms of use is their right to delete content without notice as they see fit should anything you post put them at risk of breaking the law. This seems to be the grey area that cannabis floats around as a direct result of being legalized on state levels, but not federally. Ariel Leigh of BMF Washington (RSO to go, Jackpot Seaweed, Liberty Reach) is no stranger to navigating the cannabis space on social media. BMF had their Facebook page taken down about a year ago and had to start over from zero. “A big issue is the risk and uncertainty with pages getting taken down.”

Ariel and the BMF team had no recourse for recovery, “getting your page deleted or suspended can cause irreparable damage or at best a ton of time and work to get back to where you were. Basic product marketing, like customer testimonials, becomes a huge risk. It feels like a lack of freedom of expression for something that is legal in our state. We are supposed to break down walls and stigmas against cannabis but these companies that are supposed to be platforms are preventing us from doing that.” I’m not trying to paint this as a clear black and white issue because it’s not, especially looking at it from a business risk perspective of the platform. The flip-side is there is no grace given for an unintentional breach from a cannabis Instagram account other than repeated appeals which may or may not see a reply.

We’re on the Same Side.

RMR's cannabis instagram account was shut down despite not being a cannabis retailer or producer/processor.

“Respect my Region has started another account after being shutdown at 16.5k followers.”

Mitch Pfeifer, CEO of Respect my Region, put it this way “the regulations are here to prevent targeting underage people AND creating any imagery that would be appealing the young kids or encouraging use. This is not only a federally illegal drug but also a substance that’s just now coming into legal form in any capacity of a consumer good. Big platforms that have large shareholders and can be political victims won’t be quick to jump on board.”

Mitch and Respect my Region offers a unique perspective on the topic as a company that works within the industry plenty but is not held to a 502 license since they are not a producer/processor or a retailer. RMR’s focus is on music and culture specifically the local hip hop scene and cannabis community. If you’ve been to any local industry events there’s a good chance you’ve seen Mitch or RMR COO Joey Brabo around. RMR is still restricted by the content they’re allowed to post even with no hint of sales attached. They’re still under the same target as any other cannabis Instagram accounts. Just last week their account was shut down without warning after reaching 16k followers.

Why it seems Cannabis Instagram Accounts are being Targeted.

Mitch shared his reaction upon everything getting wiped away, “when our account was shut down I was pissed! I’m never scared of a challenge to bounce back from a loss but we’ve spent a LOT of time and advertising money through Instagram and it’s parent’s company Facebook. Our key staff has paid their bills off work using these platforms for the better half of the last decade. Amongst all the changes and tips that fade, we’ve been here spending hella time and money. We’ve followed the rules, and don’t profit from the sale of cannabis so it’s super ironic that we were shut down for cannabis content.” The issue is that posting cannabis content on Instagram is putting it into a realm that obviously doesn’t recognize state lines. There’s far from a level playing field as it stands, though, when outside of the cannabis industry there is drug use that goes without the same instant shutdown consequence. “It’s ironic as musicians and celebrities have used crazy drug imagery on social media without slaps on the wrist while advertising products when their whole appeal is built upon a lifestyle consisting of drug use.. They don’t want to enter the world of freedom of speech and censor musicians and influencers that post “controversial content” but they are definitely making a statement in the business world and promotion of sales.” It certainly feels like cannabis Instagram accounts are the ones being scrutinized without the same hesitancy.

The Consequences of an Account Shutdown.

Sean Mafi's company, Top Shelf Marketing, posts cannabis content while adhering to IG's guidelines, but as a cannabis instagram account still feels the threat of a shutdown.

“Top Shelf Marketing’s Instagram account adhere’s to all the guidelines that should keep their account safe.”

The current way that these platforms are handling things is erasing immense amounts of time and work with the hasty click of a button. It’s something that’s reaching the industry from every angle. CEO of Top Shelf Marketing, Sean Mafi, has seen it happen over and over again with cannabis Instagram accounts for companies he consults for. “As cannabis is globally being more accepted and going mainstream, major platforms like Facebook and Instagram are still highly against it and constantly shutting down pages. And ads are completely forbidden. What is really frustrating is that they let you create an account and set up an online profile, just to shut you down without any explanation or warning! They just pull months, sometimes years, worth of content even though you have 100% followed the FB or IG guidelines, as well as state laws such as adding a warning blurb to every single post.” There’s no pushback from the cannabis community about adhering to rules around protecting Instagram. There are reasonable restrictions like not posting prices, not using the platform to sell cannabis online, posting disclaimers on all pictures containing cannabis that clarifies that content is intended for ages 21+– the thing is, these are all things that any major cannabis account abides by and they’re still getting shut down without warning.

What their Current Terms say about IG’s Stance on Cannabis Normalization.

As the tide continues to shift in favor of cannabis on a national scale and federal legalization seems to draw closer and closer, how long before these social media giants stop targeting legal and compliant cannabis Instagram accounts? “What drives me even crazier is that you can promote and market liquor, beer, and wine pretty much however you want, as long as you target a demographic over 21. And major tobacco companies set up marketing campaigns to go after a very young demographic and only get slapped on their hand when FB or IG finds out about it.” Sean speaks on the comparison of how IG treats other age-restricted products, “bottom line is that the way they treat the cannabis industry is wrong and a change needs to happen asap. Our industry is one of the fastest-growing markets in US and it provides jobs and brings in billions of dollars in tax money to the government. And as more and more companies go public and stock prices skyrocket, it is only a question of time before it gets federally legal and we can finally start doing our jobs without any unnecessary challenges. It’s sad though that money is the reason cannabis will go legal and not the fact that this beautiful plant can and is helping people in so many ways.”

We’re waiting for Facebook and Instagram to catch up with the rest of the modern world and make the necessary adaptations regarding legal cannabis. The longer this blacklisting of cannabis Instagram accounts persists, the clearer it will make exactly where these platforms stand on normalization. When asked what a refusal to update the platform’s terms regarding cannabis would mean BMF Washington’s Ariel stated, “it would reflect they are regressive and don’t take their role seriously as gatekeepers of information and public opinion. Prohibition is still damaging and destroying the lives of millions of people. Companies like Facebook and Instagram make public statements about fake news and view themselves as protectors of objectivity in regard to social justice. Failing to act on this is harmful and endorses the criminalization of cannabis. People who ignore the racial justice and social equity components of cannabis legalization tend to be people who have comfortable positions in society.”