The Cannabis Industry Is Still Seeking Clarity Around Organic Posts on Instagram

Community guidelines cover ads and sales but are otherwise vague

Does this image violate Instagram's community guidelines? Binske
Headshot of David Cohen

“We don’t know what our nipple is.”

That wasn’t someone confused about anatomy or a director trying to push the Motion Picture Association of America into an R rating.

It was Alex Pasternack, head of business development for edible cannabis products provider Binske, describing his efforts to learn why Instagram temporarily removed Binske’s account last month, without warning, before eventually reinstating it.

Binske is far from alone in trying to understand what’s kosher and what’s not. Several cannabis firms have told Adweek about Instagram’s seemingly disabling accounts arbitrarily without communicating why such actions took place. Cannabis, which is poised to be a $200 billion annual industry, faces some digital advertising headwinds, as Facebook and Google each refuse to allow marijuana companies to buy ad inventory. The result is that companies like Binske spend more time cultivating organic audiences, so when Instagram takes down a page, business can suffer.

Instagram declined to comment about specific accounts, instead pointing to its rules, which state that when content is removed from Instagram for violating community guidelines, the platform notifies the account holder in-application or via email. If an account is removed, it notifies the account holder via email, and the company gives the account holder the option to appeal the removal in the app. This is the same process as Facebook.

Pasternack said he received no communication from Instagram when the page was down or after it came back online.

Cannabis influencer Bess Byers shared a similar tale. Her account, with more than 96,000 followers, was disabled Aug. 1 with no warning from Instagram.

Byers said she tried to access her account and saw an error message informing her that it had been “disabled for violating our terms.” She couldn’t access her backup account, either.

Her account was restored in about a week, after filing 20 to 30 business and personal appeals per day. She received an email from Instagram that her account had been “disabled by mistake.”

Two weeks after describing her experience in a lengthy blog post, Byers’ account was disabled again with no warning. This time, it lasted about 36 hours.

While Instagram’s community guidelines address buying and selling cannabis on its platform, they do not cover organic posts containing images or videos of cannabis.

Facebook’s advertising policies related to drugs go into far more detail, covering topics such as drug-related paraphernalia and images that imply the use of recreational drugs, but those policies apply to ads, not to organic posts.

An Instagram spokesperson referenced the section of Facebook’s community standards covering regulated goods. But even there, the focus is on using the platform to sell drugs, with little clarity on how to handle organic posts.

The social network specifies that content that “promotes, encourages, coordinates or provides instructions for use of non-medical drugs [or] admits, either in writing or verbally, to personal use of non-medical drugs unless posted in a recovery context” should not be posted, but there are no guidelines on posting images of edible products, which make up the majority of the content on pages Binske’s.

Marijuana advocacy content is permitted as long as sales of the drug are not promoted.

“Our policies do not preclude people from discussing cannabis and its potential benefits or advocating for its legality,” the spokesperson said. “Dispensaries can promote the use and federal legalization of marijuana provided that they do not also promote its sale or provide contact information to their store.”

Jeffrey Zucker, co-founder and president of Green Lion Partners, said he would be willing to comply with the platform’s rules if the rules were consistent.

“Unfortunately, they have us in handcuffs, because this is the platform that’s most used by our customers,” Zucker said. “Most people in the space try to tread carefully because we know that this is an industry in transition.”

Many in the cannabis industry also pointed to inconsistencies. Some non-verified business accounts, such those of Dixie Brands and iloveincredibles, offer products similar to those offered by Binske and share similar images, and their accounts were not affected. Neither were the blue checkmark accounts of Weedmaps, High Times and Leafly, which each have cannabis product-related posts.

“It’s almost like they have some sort of random generator,” Zucker said, “What random cannabis account are we going to delete today?”

The bottom line: The industry is more than willing to comply with the rules but needs more clarity on exactly what those rules are.

“Models know what the line is: showing nipple or showing their privates,” Pasternack said. “We don’t know what our nipple is. We don’t know what caused this entire thing to take place. We are trying to get overarching guidelines for the entire industry so that we can comply.” David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.