A snapshot of cannabis on social media

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For anyone plugged into the matrix, these are five gut wrenching words. Social media’s equivalent of a breakup text can bring with it a financial hit, a halt in productivity, a communication barrier, and an unsalvageable loss in personal and professional data. For an everyday cannabis consumer, it's also another slap in the face as headlines laud the death of stigmatization for stoners. The privilege to instantly proliferate and access millions of interactions, posts, hours of video footage, followers, messages, engagements, and a democratic communication tool is just that—a privilege—and one that can be snagged away without warning if its digital gatekeepers deem appropriate. And in a time where cannabis is a “legal commodity”, where does the line between “privilege" and “right” begin to blur?

But before painting a picture of the digital frontier, let’s zoom out.

In 2018, Canada made history when it became the first G7 country to federally legalize adult use cannabis. It was celebrated as one of the most progressive global moves made around the regulation of the plant in nearly 100 years—pulling pot from the dusty casing of prohibition and placing it on shelves of licensed retailers throughout the land. Though with it came a bevy of restrictions—each almost convincing pioneered cannabis advocates the industry may have had it better before the government got its sticky hands on their bud—at least it meant a conversation around equality and autonomy was on the table. Researchers could apply for funding and publish in distinguished scientific journals, entrepreneurs could qualify for business loans, and cultivators could start using their real names. Well, in some cases. That dream world is still under construction, but at least Canada had stepped one toe outside of the dark ages. Right?

One of the digital trappings of the modern era (at least in first-world countries) is access to a selection of free and paid platforms offering real-time connections to any human also sharing multimedia content, so long as you have an internet connection and smart device. You probably stumbled on this article because someone in your social or semi-social digital pond pinged its ones-and-zeros your way, or some algorithm thought it suited your scrolling needs. But no matter how advanced these matching mechanisms get, or how user friendly and predictive the platforms become, policies around cannabis content seems to struggle to catch up with the times.

Considering social media platforms, like Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube have become leading marketing and interactive tools in which companies reach their customers and, according to the London School of Economics and Political Science, 2.9 billion humans worldwide have some kind of account on at least one of them, one would think loosening regulations and attitudes would also send tech companies rushing to hit their policy refresh button. But with each platform taking most of their cues from the country’s advertising and promotion regulations, which in Canada falls under the highly prohibitive Cannabis Act, there is virtually no room to revamp outdated and frankly discriminatory user policies. In the United States, where the plant is not federally legal but there are a combination of state-specific patchwork policies, it becomes even more difficult to soften account guidelines around weed content.

While there are many posting at their own risk, no tap-happy smartphone aficionado is above a privately owned company’s user policy, and on the web the cannabis industry is a particularly vulnerable group of thumbs.

The players and their rules

When it comes to the cannabis community and social media, each platform serves a purpose. Instagram is where weed’s underground economy barters goods, Twitter is where the industry chats, Reddit is for stock talk and stalk talk, YouTube is where you learn to clean your bong or trim your homegrow, and Facebook is where people use their rage emojis. Now, this isn’t to say there aren’t investors combing through Twitter’s trending hashtags or activists advocating for medical patients on Facebook—but no one can deny the stoner persona organically developed by each platform. But while some applications have evolved alongside North America’s loosening plant regulations, others have yet to explore updating their respective cannabis-related policies.

Twitter

Let’s start with a more progressive platform, Twitter: a real-time global gab forum in which users can share thoughts, hyperlinks, and multimedia content in 280 characters or less. It is widely considered to be one of the more 420-friendly hosts, allowing for the open sharing of cannabis keywords, news stories, nug shots, and conversation.

As far as inscribed pot policy goes, Twitter is fairly vague, touting in its mission statement that it aims to “give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers.” Cannabis-related user content is not specified in the platform’s rules or user policy, however, inquiries are directed to their “illegal or certain regulated goods or services” guidelines. Last updated in April 2019, it states: user’s “may not use our service for any unlawful purpose or in furtherance of illegal activities. This includes selling, buying, or facilitating transactions in illegal goods or services, as well as certain types of regulated goods or services.” It goes on to say accounts in violation will be reprimanded with consideration to “the severity of the violation and the account’s previous history of violations,” but enforcement can range from limiting a Tweet’s visibility to account suspension. If a Tweeter feels they’ve been unfairly penalized, they are asked to submit an appeal.

In last year’s fourth quarter earnings report, Twitter showed a 12 per cent increase in advertising revenue, totalling $885 million USD, which now includes marketing for legal cannabis businesses. While the platform has a global prohibition on the promotion of all illicit, recreational, and herbal drugs, associated accessories and dispensaries, and depictions of hard drug use, it does, however, consider two country-specific exemptions. In Canada, users may promote cannabis content if they have obtained both a Health Canada licence and authorization from Twitter itself. Once greenlit, ads cannot depict price, distribution, or youth-targeted content, and they can’t be displayed to users living in jurisdictions with a ban on any cannabis advertising, indirect or direct, like Quebec. The platform’s U.S. policy complies with its legislative shifts as well, in that ads can only promote non-ingestible, legally derived CBD topical products (produced in accordance with the Hemp Farm Act), ad content can only appeal to those over 21, and cannot be posted in jurisdictions that don’t allow for cannabis advertising (Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Virginia).

Facebook & Instagram

Mark Zuckerberg’s early and unpopular foray into social media networking, Facesmash, was launched as a “prank” to rate college girls on their hotness (that didn’t age well). That factoid has nothing to do with weed, or his much more successful platform Facebook, but I think it shouldn’t be forgotten in the conversations around the moral applications of social media (considering moral fortitude is an argument so often weaponized against the autonomy of drug users). Facebook, which was launched in 2004, is now considered one of the grandfathers of social media. And it’s policies are as mothballed as that image conveys.

In 2016, Facebook noticeably started policing dispensaries and entrepreneurs using the platform to promote grey market businesses. Leading into 2018, however, its moderators began cracking down hard on weed content in general. Without warning, the platform began surreptitiously hiding and deleting anything hailing terms like “marijuana” and “weed”, so users weren’t able to search for cannabis-related business, organizations, or pages. The moratorium even shrouded pages owned by provincial entities, like the Ontario Cannabis Store, American government associations, like the California Bureau of Cannabis Control, and non-profits not promoting its sale, including advocacy group the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). The campaign ended on October 11 that year when Facebook Inc. announced a lift on its ban for verified accounts.

“We are constantly working to improve our search results so that we minimize the opportunity for people to attempt illicit drug sales while showing content that is allowed on Facebook and is relevant to what you are searching,” Sarah Pollack, a Facebook spokesperson, told MarketWatch, the publication that broke the announcement. “When searching ‘cannabis’ or ‘marijuana,’ pages that have been verified for authenticity will now be included in search results.”

Once you’ve sifted through policy on selling human organs, child pornography, and 3D gun printing files, however, you’ll find a slightly less open-minded dialogue dictating what is eligible for the holy “verified” checkmark.

The platform classifies cannabis as a regulated good under the violence and criminal behaviour section of Facebook’s community standards. Other content regulated under this umbrella is fraud, terrorist activity, mass murder, and publicized crime. Under these guidelines, Facebook prohibits “attempts by individuals, manufacturers, and retailers to purchase, sell or trade non-medical drugs, pharmaceutical drugs and marijuana.” This extends to mentions or depictions of cannabis, attempts to sell, buy, gift, or trade related products, or promoting, encouraging, coordinating, or providing instructions for the use or making of any “non-medical drugs”.

“Drugs are treated differently across countries and regions. Setting different policies based on the laws of every jurisdiction where we operate is simply not feasible. Instead, we’ve tried to take a common sense approach that we think is most in-line with what people find acceptable,” wrote Monika Bickert, Facebook’s vice president of global policy management, in 2018.

Facebook retains the right to remove any photos, testimonials, or videos depicting the use of cannabis, discussing personal use, or encouraging others to consume at its “sole discretion.”

Bickert does, however, specify a consideration: recovery. She continued: “We know that sharing one’s personal battle with addiction can be a powerful way to help one’s own and other people’s recovery. So we do allow discussion and depiction of non-medical drugs in the context of recovery testimonies.” (The blog provided the below example.)


Things start to get even foggier when one pulls at the strings making up Facebook's weed-related advertising policies. Most cannabis companies who attempt ad buys, marketplace posts, or “boosts” (ads created from posts on your own Facebook page with daily budgets and reach goals) via the platform end up with business pages banned, ads flagged, and accounts disabled. As little as one “violation” of the commerce policies can result in an axed account. When it comes to weed, that violation falls under the attempted buying or selling “prescription products, drugs, and drug paraphernalia”, which specifies “marijuana and marijuana products” as its first example.

While Facebook Inc., owns the free photo and video sharing app, Instagram, it does slightly differ in policy and popularity. A survey published in 2016 out of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found in a two-week period, over 417,561 “marijuana-related” hashtags were shared on the app. Now, in early 2020, the hashtag “cannabis” has over 21.2 million mentions, “weed” has 21.5 million. While there is nothing in the app’s community guidelines prohibiting personal content depicting cannabis use or advocating for its consumption, the networks “reviewers” often cut content that doesn’t violate its vague policy simply because it has been flagged by other users. In the past, companies like HiiighVibes (a Canadian teacup line brandishing gold pot leaf designs) and Jodie’s Joint (a former hemp themed cafe in Toronto) have both had to appeal suspended accounts despite playing within the platform’s content guidelines. Legal businesses, like Hobo Cannabis and Fire and Flower, complying with Canadian cannabis marketing regulations, along with handfuls of industry influencers using the app legally for activism, creative expression, and networking, have also been caught in Instagram’s content trawl.

Vancouver-based influencer and content creator Dorota Szymanska has used Instagram as a platform to share her personal consumption and product experiences since April 20, 2018. She credits the app for affording her opportunities to discover interesting brands and develop “great friendships with other cannabis enthusiasts.” Sharing reviews, smoke sessions, and 420-friendly selfies has garnered Szymanska over 10,000 followers and should all theoretically feel like a safe play considering she’s not violating any of the platform’s ecommerce restrictions and every other commodity boasts thousands of influencers, right? Not quite.

Photo Credit: @Dorota916 via Instagram

“Unfortunately, being so dependent on Instagram scares me… any day I could lose my account, so I feel like I'm at their mercy,” she told Inside the Jar. She has lost her account twice in the last two years—once for three days and, the second time, three weeks.

“The recent deletion hit me hard and I definitely ugly-cried once or twice over it. I was appealing about 100 times a day, and after about a week got a response it was gone for good,” she said, adding she was “crushed”. After consistently appealing the suspension her account was restored with an apology from Instagram citing “a mistake”.

A common theme of restoration-without-explanation emerges when you talk to account holders who’ve been stung by digital policing. As these platforms deal with thousands of communications on a daily basis, appeals often go unanswered and restored content doesn’t generally come with a reason. Most users confirm the only indication their content was restored, be it a video on YouTube or a photo on Instagram, were notifications of their followers interacting (liking, commenting, or sharing) with it again.

Szymanska said she has since taken several steps to avoid any confusion around her account use—from completely avoiding any posts about sales or using promotional lingo to writing a note on age restrictions in her bio. But she clarified deletions aren't an open cannabis consumer’s only concerns.

“There’s action blocking, which is being blocked from liking, commenting, and sometimes posting for usually two weeks, and shadowbanning, which is being banned from using hashtags and showing up on the explore page,” she explained. “Both can be pretty disruptive to building and growing an account.”

While Instagram has never fully admitted (in some cases even denied) to the rumoured practice of shadowbanning—blocking, restricting, or hiding content unbeknownst to the account holder—it’s a widely accepted fate that your content will “coincidentally” dip in interactions if you’re openly posting about cannabis. Effectively, it quietly limits the potential attention a post may pull without explicitly blocking the account’s ability to carry out typical actions on a network (Twitter is also rumoured to regularly flex this muscle).

“[Shadowbanning] usually occurs immediately after you have a post deleted and lasts two weeks, while action blocking happens if Instagram believes you are liking or commenting too much.”

Szymanska called the platform's rules “archaic” considering the legal status of cannabis in her home country and in several American states, specifically California where Instagram is headquartered.

“While I understand wanting to limit people's ability to sell illicit drugs over the app, I don't understand the issue of showcasing a joint in a photo, when they have no issue with people doing shots or beer bongs in posts,” she said. “Whether it’s post deletions, shadowbans, or just constant creepy sexual messages, Instagram isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Especially when I get a post removed for showcasing a joint, but when a man messages me dick pics all day from multiple accounts, then Instagram notifies me that he doesn’t violate their terms. Guess it’s clear, public enemy number one for Instagram is cannabis.”

In an effort to wipe out illegal sales, it may be understandable that a number of these cases are just bystanders hit with shrapnel in the platform’s attempt to eradicate content genuinely violating countrywide laws. This, however, doesn’t seem to be the clunky mannerism in which each platform handles, say, alcohol. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who had their account disabled because they shared one too many #WineWednesday selfies. Though, in these moments I find myself also asking: can we really expect any better than “clunky” from a network that bans images of a woman’s nipple, but not a man’s?

And while Instagram is a notorious marketplace for unregulated sales—and incredibly inconsistent in its policing of said accounts (with several CBD and hemp infused wellness product companies approved for paid post features)—it differs from its parent company in that it has an no-exceptions policy when it comes to the sale of cannabis. It reads: “Instagram doesn’t allow people or organizations to use the platform to advertise or sell marijuana, regardless of the seller’s state or country. Our policy prohibits any marijuana seller, including dispensaries, from promoting their business by providing contact information like phone numbers, email addresses, street addresses, or by using the “contact us” tab in Instagram Business Accounts.” Instagram also reserves the right to penalize (ban, remove, or hide posts and accounts) without warning.

Again, one can appeal any internal action taken against both Facebook and Instagram accounts—but be prepared to potentially fill out those forms dozens of times before getting a response.

Reddit

Long before there were glossy Instagram Discover pages brimming with bud porn or heated Twitter debates about whether or not 10 milligrams of THC in an edible is too high, or won’t get you high enough, there were forums. For growers, there’s Rollitup, ICMag, Grasscity, and THCfarmer, but for those who want a broader range of subject and community engagement—there’s Reddit. The “front page of the internet” pulls in over 330 million active users, and for the cannabis industry it is home to thousands of “subreddits” (discussion boards dedicated to a specific topic, like /r/trees or /r/weedstocks) on homegrow advice, stock updates, industry news wires, product alerts, community banter, sales channels, and hyperlinks galore. It’s a simple interface with a heap of data, and though moderated both by users and internal teams it’s usually left free of external legal intervention (unless in cases of severely illegal or explicit content). That is, until recently.

A post published on March 31 informed users that a popular mail-order marijuana (MoM) subreddit, r/CanadianMOMs, had been removed due to a legal request “in your country.” The geoblock doesn’t appear for all users in Canada and can be bypassed using a VPN rerouter. While subreddit removal isn’t a new phenomenon for Reddit, it has raised a number of conversations around government intervention and digital censorship on the platform.

When it comes to its content policy, the California-headquartered company has always led with granting “a lot of leeway in what content is acceptable”—advocating its platform as a home for respect, openness, and “some of the most authentic content anywhere online.” While not entirely free of political oversight or corporate interest, signing advertising deals with economic leviathans like the NFL, it is widely accepted to be one of the less policed networks. Content prohibitions are standard (no involuntary pornography, bullying, inciting violence, etc.) and it has a few hardline restrictions around voter manipulation, breaking the site, and creating multiple accounts to evade punishment. Even nudity, pornography, and profanity are allowed, though encouraged to be marked with an NSFW (not safe for work) warning. But its policy doesn’t mention weed anywhere, though it does mention no “illegal activity”, which is region-and product-specific when it comes to cannabis regulations.

In Canada, online sales of legal recreational cannabis fall under a provincial monopoly. Not even federally licensed cannabis producers can sell directly through digital channels. All legal products must be purchased by a provincial wholesaler and consumers can order through government websites, like the Ontario Cannabis Store or the BC Cannabis Store. This federally enforced ecommerce restriction could be enough to justify why Canadian accounts were restricted from seeing a subreddit discussing MoMs. (We’ll circle back to that thought in a moment.) But provincial retailers have openly admitted to using Reddit to gather consumer insight and share retail announcements (new product drops, pricing packages, or restocks), like the OCS.

YouTube

One of the platforms to take a lot of heat in recent years for its cannabis-content restrictions—more so the way it goes about enforcing them—is YouTube. As of 2019, Google’s video hosting platform saw a whopping two billion active monthly users with over five billion videos shared to date. Capturing an average of 40-minute-interval viewing sessions, it has an average of 30 million active users consuming millions of videos a day. And it made $15.1 billion last year.

Being one of the biggest kids on the block, it should come as no shock that it’s also a bit of a bully when it comes to including the friendly neighbourhood stoners. This was never more evident than the great weed purge of 2018. In the span of a few weeks, hundreds of YouTube’s most popular cannabis channels lost large portions (if not all) of their videos, subscribers, and interactions in a content cull that swept the network. Already, cannabis content was classified as “age restricted”, meaning it couldn’t be traditionally monetized under YouTube’s ad model, but with videos being yanked without warning accounts were losing swaths of followers and along with it, a revenue stream. As a response, individual users began to appeal decisions, generate support on other social networks, and group together to sign petitions. Theories swirled around YouTube’s lacklustre efforts to screen ad content up to that point, suggesting a boost in content screeners and new algorithms to clear up “offensive content” was to blame. Others mused it had more to do with the lack of ad revenue to be made from cannabis videos.

One such account was UrbanRemo—a popular Canadian database of educational videos produced by Remo and Sandra Colasanti, who chatted with ITJ by phone. The two head their company, Remo Nutrients, which produces vitamins, minerals, and extracts for cannabis cultivation.

“It was right around the time of the content guideline change, and they apparently had hired a huge amount of people to come in and check the accounts. Though, we still don’t really know what happened,” said Sandra.

“It’s all hearsay, because YouTube never told any of us in the end,” added Remo.

Photo Credit: UrbanRemo via YouTube

The Colasantis say it began as a tidal wave of “community guideline strikes” filtering in, dozens a day, citing anything from spam to illegal and violent content.

“Of course, none of our videos were showing any of that. We didn’t break any laws. We’re federally legal here,” said Remo, based in Maple Ridge, B.C.

“And you can’t do anything when it happens. You can’t go on to your site or see the video, until you acknowledge the strike. If you don’t appeal, it’s an automatic removal… you had to be vigilant, not miss one, otherwise it was gone,” Sandra recalled, saying she called the headquarters to plead her case and submitted a copy of their federal licence to prove the legality of their facility.

YouTube never directly responded to the hundreds of appeals Sandra submitted. The appeals were each sent to a human to review, but she never received a response—the videos were either reinstated, only to be flagged again, or her requests were ignored.

“Eventually, they just shut us off and sent us a nasty letter saying something like ‘you’ll never have a Google or YouTube account again’, and that was that,” said Remo.

They were in “YouTube exile” for four months until one day, without warning, the channel came back online. Remo said the only way they were alerted to the reinstatement was because they began getting community guideline strikes in their email inbox again. Eventually, the strikes were all removed and the account, and their 236,000-plus subscribers and 53 million views were left alone.

While both Sandra and Remo drive home that their non-monetized content is purely for entertainment and education, featuring videos on grow room tips, product reviews, and flower testing, they do say it plays a pivotal role in organically spreading the word about their products and services. “Social media is everything [to our brand]. We rarely advertise in magazines, we rarely advertise anywhere traditional,” said Sandra. “Because we can’t. But because of YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, it’s brought us around the world. Our products are sold in 30 different countries and they found us because of social media,” added Remo. “It’s hugely important to us.”

Despite having their account reinstated, 2018 wasn’t the end of the purge, just a sharpening of the platform’s focus.

While YouTube explicitly states any content promoting the sale of “drugs” is a policy violation, one way in which the platform has discouraged general cannabis content is through “demonetization"—or restricting a video’s advertising capabilities. While compliant content can opt into ads running before and during a video’s run time, “offensive” or inappropriate content will lose the right to this feature. Under its “advertising-friendly guidelines”, video content cannot promote or feature the use, sale, or abuse of “illegal drugs, regulated drugs, or substances, or other dangerous products”—cannabis included. There is an exception: “videos discussing drugs or dangerous substances for educational, documentary, and artistic purposes (such as music videos) are generally suitable for advertising—so long as drug use or substance abuse is not graphic or glorified.” This guideline also includes specific prohibitions on “legal highs” (whatever that means) and any services marketed as facilitating recreational drug use, like “pipes, bongs, cannabis coffee shops”.

In an effort to uphold legal age restrictions, there is an option to mark videos as adult or age-restricted content. This may help build a case for keeping your cannabis-related videos online, but it comes at a cost. “Age-restricted videos are not eligible for monetization and are not shown in certain sections of YouTube. Age-restricted videos are also not eligible to be used as ads,” as written in YouTube’s community guidelines. Despite the number of channels earning over six figures growing 40 per cent per year, with an eight-year-old making $26 million off the site in 2019, YouTube’s prohibitive ecommerce policy effectively means the platform does not qualify as a potential revenue stream for any account holder creating content around the cannabis industry.

Trimming the buds, transparently

Now, with all of those policies in mind, one may find themselves thinking: “sure, but how often do they actually axe an account for that kind of thing?” Enter the transparency report. In 2010, Google pioneered a new document illuminating user data specifically pertaining to account removal or termination. Since then, 70 large technology companies have joined in releasing routine transparency reports worldwide (many have also quietly dropped the practice).

From January to June 2019, Twitter received its highest number of global legal demands to remove content since launching the reports in 2012 (67 per cent more, impacting approximately 86 per cent more accounts). While it doesn’t differentiate the type of content it removed, the number translates to 50,757 accounts, from 49 different countries, based on reports from governments, “authorized reporters”, and non-governmental organizations. For violations of Twitter’s rules, 1.3 million accounts were “actioned”, amounting to an 105 per cent increase since its previous reporting period.

While Twitter’s transparency reports don’t at all focus on weed, highlighting more severe cases of copyright infringement, government intervention, and platform manipulation, Facebook’s data (representing both Facebook and Instagram) does in fact make specific reference to action taken against cannabis content. This type of content falls under their regulated goods standards. Between the second and third quarters of 2019, Facebook said it strengthened its proactive enforcement on drug violation content—increasing content actioned from 2.6 million pieces to 4.4 million. Of that, 97.6 per cent was found and flagged internally by Facebook’s content regulators before users could report. Of that, just over 130,000 pieces of content were appealed by the account holder, 62,000 of which were restored—meaning 1.4 per cent of actioned content was restored.

Between October and December of last year, YouTube removed 5.9 million videos (5.3 million of which were flagged internally by algorithms or “teams around the world”) and 2.1 million channels for violating its community guidelines. This accounts for over 540 million comments. While there is no specific category eluding to cannabis- or drug-related content (with only 1.7 per cent of removed videos falling under the “other” category, as opposed to “child safety” or “nudity”), the Colasanti’s story illuminates the random nature by which YouTube can assign blame to a content flag.

In 2019, moderators removed 84 million pieces of content from Reddit, largely based on “individual subreddit rules that are unique to each community and set by the moderators and communities themselves.” Its report clarifies: “while there may be overlap between enforcement of these rules and the Reddit Content Policy, moderator actions are entirely separate from removals carried out by Reddit Administrators,” which amount to 53 million removals. “Controlled goods”, which would include illegal drug-related content, represented 7.2 per cent of policy violations leading to content removals, and 3.2 per cent of account suspensions.

While there is much speculation about the accuracy and applicability of transparency reports in their role in building user and investor trust, the specificity of Facebook’s data helps provide a clearer picture of the number of accounts being taken down for drug-related content. But attempt to ask any of these platforms why their policies are so anti-cannabis in an era of increasing legalization, and that’s where the “transparency” ends, unfortunately. (Trust me, I’ve tried.) We’ll have to settle for weed-related content accounting for some percentage of those aforementioned content sweeps.

MoMs and ecommerce

Before we move on to how some innovators are legally working around policy hurdles, there is a digital player in the matrix that seems to know the secret to avoiding penalties while retaining revenue streams. Long before the conceptualization of Health Canada’s licensing regime, pot was sold online. Meet Mail Order Marijuana (MoM): the early adopters of web-based cannabis retail, and currently the outlaws dominating weed’s wild west. Though often not tied exclusively to one social media platform, these digital dispensaries have long relied on cross-platform activity to not only move products, but also to quickly expand their customer base. And their secret to pulling in a steady cash flow, while evading punishment for breaching laws, is anonymity and adaptability. Where illicit brick-and-mortar dispensaries are tied to a frontline team of budtenders (vulnerable to arrest) and an affixed location (vulnerable to a raid), a website can shut down, switch domains and accounts (often already in place as an emergency backup), and reopen for business within mere hours—no legal names, no fingerprints, and little to no human risk. And while there is no guarantee the product is as advertised or a customer isn’t going to get scammed, the appeal comes in the form of discretion, tantalizing discounts, shopping in your pyjamas, access to a more diverse array of products, and, in most cases, shockingly speedy delivery times. (I recently had a Vancouver-based friend brag that he had ordered an eighth from a local MoM, hopped in the shower, and had to receive “the drop” clad only in a towel—“an eight minute eighth!” he sang proudly.)

Like pre-regulation storefront dispensaries, MoMs once operated under a conflicting set of rules, with little enforcement. Before Canada’s new framework, there were medical exemptions allowing for approved designated cultivators growing on behalf of prescribed patients. So, while many MoMs were moving 'technically' legal products, selling them online has never been legal. But driving the Liberal’s legalization in 2018 was the hope of eradicating the underground economy, including digital sales. In accordance with the Cannabis Act, each province was granted power to create its overarching legal retail framework and each had long understood the market dominance of web sales. As mentioned before, nearly every province now has the legal monopoly on digital retail. Has this eradicated illicit online sales? Hardly. According to federal data, 40 per cent of Canadian consumers still purchase from illicit sources (a 12 per cent drop from data collected shortly before legalization). In B.C., the number jumps to one in two consumers. In fact, the slow drip of pricey, subpar products on legal shelves, shipping delays, and fiercely stringent advertising hurdles only emboldened those hawking high dose, premium quality, well branded, and cheap black market weed. Now, in a time of isolation (with COVID-19 still not remedied by any vaccine), online sales are the safest way to buy weed—giving MoMs even more reason to risk the rewards.

As the Canada Post Corporation Act prevents federal police from obtaining warrants to seize mail, except in the case of a threat to national security, there is very little law enforcement can do to stop this method of sales. (Cops can, however, obtain warrants to seize a package once it has been delivered if they obtain the approval of the various jurisdictions.) This doesn’t mean government’s haven’t been trying their damnedest to snuff out the rebellion. For example, where the domain TheHerbCentre.ca used to take you to the landing page of a once profitable online dispensary, it now bears only a proverbial head on a spike under the foreboding warning: “this domain has been seized.”

Canada Post does not have the authority to stop private distributors, either, and it even posts helpful tips on discreetly mailing weed, including suggesting “odour-proof, tamper-proof, and leak-proof inner and outer packaging” and “anonymous” mailers.

When it comes to the updated regulations on social media use for licensed companies, it can be difficult to find direct references. In B.C., the term “social media” isn’t referenced in the Cannabis Control and Licensing Act, nor is it noted in the handbook (LCRB) for the promotion of non-medical cannabis. Though the word “cannabis” has been shoved in the header of the licensed liquor social media policy document, the agency makes no mention of cannabis in its contents. But, none of the provinces really have to update these policies more than they already have because subsection 17 of the Cannabis Act explicitly outlaws “communicating information about its price or distribution”, or “doing so in a manner that there are reasonable grounds to believe could be appealing to young persons”, or “by means of a testimonial or endorsement, however displayed or communicated” or “by means of the depiction of a person, character or animal, whether real or fictional,” or “by presenting it or any of its brand elements in a manner that associates it or the brand element with, or evokes a positive or negative emotion about or image of, a way of life such as one that includes glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk, or daring.” All this to say, if you’re a federally licensed company using social platforms easily accessed by children is risky and susceptible to removal for legal reasons.

Colouring within the lines

Privately owned social media platforms take their policy cues from two places: investors and the government. Investors dictate incoming dollars, and policy dictates internal corporate attitudes. Promotional cannabis content is legal in Canada, though restrictions on it are rather prohibitive, but talking to Jessica Brown and Stephanie Martens, founders of Root Creative, illuminated the potential for ingenuity in the face of adversity. The duo launched the Vancouver-based creative services agency last year and specializes in accelerating brands in the regulated cannabis industry—including helping conceptualize compliant and effective social media strategies.

“For brands, [social media] is important in keeping your lines of communication open,” said Martens. “Especially now, in these times we’re currently in, it’s maybe a consumer’s only touchpoint to the internal team of a company… Not only does it facilitate a two-way dialogue that shows your customers that they’re important to you, but also allows for a means or avenue to communicate during these crisis times and keep your message out there.”

Both founders are longtime consumers and stem from cannabis-related marketing, media, and public relations backgrounds, which was where they first noticed how rare it was to find content creators who embodied what Brown calls “the necessary trifecta”: a deep understanding of the regulations, creative talent, and a true love for the plant. It’s that marriage of qualities, she said, that helps brands navigate convoluted promotional regulations still evolving at the federal and provincial levels.

“A phrase I picked up from Jen Larry from CBD Strategy Group is ‘thrive inside the box’,” said Brown. “Yes, the regulations are restrictive, and, yes, there are a lot of issues coming from that, but put all of that aside and it is a real opportunity for creatives to get creative. You’re given certain guidelines, some clearer than others, but there is somewhat of a framework you can work within. That’s what we, as marketers, were designed to do.”

She went on to explain that each platform serves its own purpose, so each should have an equally unique strategy comprehensive of its limitations and benefits. What works for Twitter isn’t going to work for Instagram, and failure tends to happen when brands approach all of them with the same lot of content.

“Associate your social media tactics with a goal, and don’t look at it in a silo,” suggested Martens. “Anything on social media needs to be looked at as a holistic approach, not just one insular tactic because the worst thing that can happen is someone owning that social channel and strategy and it... falls apart. Your audience knows and reacts right away. It also helps to tie your strategy to an authentic personality in the industry—not just a platform.”

Brown said when it comes to cannabis, paid advertising is challenging across all social platforms, and it's an issue of equity she’d like to see addressed.

“When you have larger companies with larger spends who have account managers with a keen insight of these social media companies, you have companies who are able to navigate regulatory challenges and get paid advertising approved. A smaller company doesn’t have that opportunity,” she said. “Everybody should have the same ability to market, regardless of what your ad spend is.”

Martens agreed, pointing out the enormous amount of financial waste incurred over the past two years at the hand of changing ad regulations. As large corporations rush to place their brand in highly visible, user-rich platforms, ad dollars are funnelled into developing campaigns that can crumble with a simple policy change or new regulatory hurdle.

“This is an evolving industry, rules and regulations change swiftly and at the behest of the provincial governments,” she said. “It hurts me to see the amount of time wasted and wasted funds going through this process.”

Brown also pointed out the discriminatory exclusion around the promotion of cannabis-related educational and non-profit events on platforms like Facebook and EventBrite.

“[Cannabis] really lends itself to a social sphere, particularly from an education and community-building standpoint,” she said. “There are a lot of people in the community who want to do good work, but their hands are tied in the types of social initiatives they’re able to sponsor, for no good reason.”

Currently, Ad Standards Canada and the Canadian Marketing Association provides guidelines and tips on compliant digital promotion, but there’s no formal governing body for ad standards in terms of cannabis (other than Health Canada, which won’t vet your ads but deals with complaints on a case-by-case basis). There are also no licences currently available for cannabis consumption in lounges or at special events, including outdoor festivals like Vancouver’s annual 4/20 protestival, rendering the promotion of or association with such events on social media illegal.

Drawing your own lines

For some, finding new ways to play within the rules isn’t as satisfying as making your own. In 2015, entrepreneur and cannabis advocate Arend Richard was well on his way to creating a lucrative career for himself on YouTube. Though he started singing on the platform, pursuing his interests in music, it was viral weed related tutorials, like his viral video on “how to smoke a pipe”, that garnered half-a-million-veiws in two months, and made his name as the Gay Stoner. “I realized maybe I do know a thing or two about [cannabis] that other people don’t… so I leaned into it,” he told ITJ.

When Richard began, he said there were less than ten popular YouTubers posting cannabis content. Over the years, however, he started building a larger collective and community, which led to him even managing a few fellow weed YouTubers.

But in February 2018, his account was one heavily targeted in the platform's content purge.

“There were a couple of channels that were deleted in the first week, but nobody really thought too much of it,” he explained. “Then, in a span of seven days, everyone was gone. It was crazy. There was no warning, there was no reason given as to why. And it was different from anything YouTube had done up to that point because it was one fell swoop to remove a specific type of content.”

He said occasionally accounts would see a video that was a little too heavy on consumption receive a violation, but never had he seen swaths of similar accounts, including one’s featuring basic educational videos, removed in such a short timeframe.

Richard said he got his channel back “randomly” about six months after it was deleted, but it was again removed two months later. He stopped trying to recover the account shortly thereafter.

“My experience communicating with them [YouTube] was nothing. I would send them emails all the time and get nothing back. Even when I got my account back, I had no communication from them. I just got a Tweet from someone saying ‘oh my gosh, your channel is back’ and it was.”

Instead of continuously fighting the uphill battle of appeal after appeal to stay on a platform that clearly didn't want him there, he decided to make his own. In 2018, he co-founded the WeedTube: “A place where creators can not only have a guaranteed safe place for their content to live, but they can also be compensated for their hard work.”

Photo Credit: Arend Richard via The WeedTube

“We realized we had nowhere else to go, and it was not only our career but it was our passion. We really enjoyed making the content we were making and connecting with the community in the way we were. We didn't want to lose our ability to keep doing what we were doing.”

Once decided to launch a new platform, Richard and a group of fellow content creators were able to raise enough money to start the site.

On March 1, 2020, the WeedTube hit its two-year anniversary. So far, its iOS app has surpassed 150,000 downloads and is nearing 75,000 downloads of the Android app. The site has seen more than three million unique users since its inception, now registering between 50,000 to 100,000 unique monthly users.

Recently, the platform launched its first original series, titled Healthy Dose of High, following hosts Nick Barnhill and Crue Kopecky, as they profile cannabis users worldwide. The goal is to bust the “lazy stoner” stereotype by focusing on people who reap the benefits of cannabis while consuming daily.

“We really focus on the Rasatafari culture and how they use cannabis in a healthy way. It’s beautiful, really beautiful. I think it’s going to open a lot of eyes,” said Richard.

This type of educational content often gets losts in the midst of digital purges, falling under sweeping category exemptions. Richard feels platforms like the WeedTube that provide avenues for a progressive conversation are one of the only mechanisms for erasing weed’s enduring bad rap.

“I think seeing other people that someone can relate to using cannabis and not being negatively affected, and in many cases being helped by it, really helps change the stigma. Even for me, when I was 18 years old, I thought cannabis was the devil and you couldn’t have told me otherwise based on how I was raised,” he said. Richard lives with a rare blood disease, mastocytosis, for which he was eventually prescribed cannabis as a treatment. Up until his medical consideration of the plant, he was strongly opposed to its consumption. “When my doctor told me I should try cannabis as a replacement for several things I was taking I was scared. But I tried it and it changed my life. I wanted to be a part of that message.”

“Getting that message out through social media is the only way to do that in the day and age we live in. It’s the only way we can change the perception.”

Though the benefit of pioneering a new avenue is making your own rules around content regulation—and virtually carving a safe space for a targeted community of creators—Richard says it doesn’t mean the WeedTube team doesn’t face digital discrimination.

“Beyond the platform, we’re not allowed to promote our service to other people with cannabis interests on other social platforms like Instagram, Facebook, or Snapchat,” he said. “Definitely, we as a company are pre-censored as to our outreach abilities to people who might enjoy being part of our community. Aside from that, cannabis in general is still censored on a lot of platforms. For some reason, there is an easing up right now, but I doubt that’s a permanent thing.”

The right to break bad laws

There is no confusion around why social media platforms aren’t jumping to adopt more progressive policies around cannabis. As mentioned previously, private companies are hogtied by government regulations. Simply put, the likes of Facebook and Twitter can be held financially and legally accountable for failing to deter content that flouts regional laws. In 2019, the E.U. Court of Justice made this clear when it ruled that individual countries can order social media platforms to not only take down posts depicting illegal content, but that platforms also have a responsibility to search out content hidden in private groups, forums, or chats, and remove it as well. It set a global precedent for political intervention in a virtually borderless cyber landscape. Facebook has long argued that it shouldn’t be responsible for policing user content, but as policymakers and governments worldwide tighten their internet laws, they are only left with one option: create more stringent policies to avoid harsh penalties. To anyone who has suffered at the hand of digital hate speech, trolls, or may have accidentally come across a video depicting violence or worse, this seems like a proactive approach to snuffing out incidents like cyberbullying.

Furthermore, when it comes to cannabis, sharing content online often fails to maintain legislative requirements with respect to both the promotional marketing of age-restricted products and unlicensed goods. On social media, illicit market products are often openly consumed and endorsed. And when you consider 10-year-olds are starting Instagram beefs with adults (though its policy dictates users must be over 13 years old), all one has to do is lie about their age to hop the age-gate hurdle and access troves of youth-inappropriate data.

So, sure, there are valid points behind some anti-weed policies. But—with all that in mind—what I would ask you to consider when unpacking the blanket cannabis prohibitions on these platforms is two-fold. First, what broke an unfair and discriminatory history of prohibition? Second, should free reign to participate in the digital Socratic circle be considered an act of free expression?

It wasn’t governments, prime ministers, or political leaders that broke cannabis from a 95-year prohibition. It was activists intentionally breaking bad laws and demanding inclusion for both autonomy to recreationally consume a soft drug, and for patient access to a safer alternative medicine. When held accountable, these laws were challenged in court and precedents were set that slowly won a right to grow, purchase, and consume a product that is now sold, in droves, by our provincial governments. And with the advent of the internet, and its role in disseminating information beyond propaganda, political leaders had no choice but to start changing their tone. Had those actors not pushed to rewrite unconstitutional laws, cannabis may still be treated like a hard drug today.

To further expand on the concept of free expression, social media acts as a modern marketplace for the unrestricted exchange of ideas. It has fuelled social movements that have led to massive social change, like #MeToo, and redefined painfully engrained stigmas around atypical beauty standards, racial diversity, and trans inclusion. For consumers who have found incredible benefits from cannabis, social media is a place for them to share their stories—from its contributions to mental health and parenting, to inspiring activism and education. Shouldn’t it be inclusive, safe space for those citizens too?

My intent is not to undercut the need to protect youth from predatory and persuasive marketing campaigns. We’ve seen both tobacco and alcohol aim their sights at younger audiences, and do so effectively, only resulting in a need for more stringent regulation. I do, however, intend to challenge a discussion around the digital landscape and its role in your life as not only a mechanism of education, but as a fair and free place for expression.

For now, the takeaway is this: if you’re posting about cannabis on social media, back up your content. But keep this question in mind, too: if you’re not doing anything illegal, should you have to?