The Cannabis Industry Is Still Fighting for Legitimacy on Social Media Platforms

Ads are banned on many networks, and accounts are closed without warning

Marijuana not having been legalized on a federal level present problems
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Marijuana is legal in some form (medical, recreational or both) in 30 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, but when it comes to digital media efforts related to the industry, social media platforms seem to be stuck in 1936, when the cult classic Reefer Madness was released.

Several experts explained that many social networks, like Facebook and Instagram, hold conservative and antiquated stances when it comes to marketing cannabis. Digital publishers and ad agencies involved in the cannabis industry said they have been hamstrung because they’re banned from advertising on some social platforms, seeing their social accounts (and, in some cases, the influencers they were working with) go up in smoke.

“It’s been frustrating for us not being able to advertise on Facebook and Google because of our involvement in the cannabis industry,” said Jeffrey Zucker, co-founder and president of Green Lion Partners, a business strategy firm focused on early-stage development in the regulated cannabis industry. He added that he has had to deal with influencers who have spent a lot of time building up their followings suddenly seeing their accounts deleted without any prior messaging or warning, and often with no recourse.

Isaac Dietrich, CEO of MassRoots, a digital community for medical cannabis users, expressed similar frustrations, saying that MassRoots’ Instagram account has been removed and restored three times, and adding that Instagram and its parent company Facebook “don’t seem to give much guidance on what type of cannabis content is allowed and what type isn’t.”

While MassRoots and other marijuana-related companies have been banned from advertising on Facebook and Instagram, Dietrich said his company uses influencers and has also been able to run some ads on Twitter, spending more than $150,000 on that social network over the past two years. He added that those Twitter ads “have been extremely successful compared to other forms of advertising,” but did not elaborate further.

On the organic side, Dietrich said MassRoots has seen strong performance from videos, particularly on Snapchat, where they often reach “tens of thousands” of views. MassRoots’ videos run the gamut of topics—how-to content, product reviews, industry news and even pot-related humor. Here are two examples from its Facebook page:

The underlying thread connecting what ails the cannabis industry: federal regulation. Since the plant has not been legalized on the federal level, cannabis brands don’t have a standardized structure to simplify advertising on social platforms.

Laws on how marijuana brands can advertise vary from state to state where it has been legalized. For example, marijuana retailers in Colorado can’t run a TV ad or a digital ad unless it has “reliable evidence” that no more than 30 percent of the audience for the TV program or website is reasonably expected to be under the age of 21—you can run ads against Saturday Night Live but not SpongeBob SquarePants.

On Facebook, while you can target by age and location, you may not know if the company hits that 30 percent threshold. And Facebook doesn’t want to be on the hook for errant targeting or ads, so it opted to take a blanket approach. According to its prohibited ads policy, “Ads must not constitute, facilitate or promote illegal products, services or activities. Ads targeted to minors must not promote products, services or content that are inappropriate, illegal or unsafe, or that exploit, mislead or exert undue pressure on the age groups targeted.” Another clause: “Ads can’t promote the sale or use of illegal, prescription or recreational drugs,” meaning no images of bongs, joints or marijuana itself.

Dietrich said, “Despite the progress on the legalization front, it seems like a lot of these networks have become stricter and more prohibitionist.”

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