“Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic company … and, as Facebook has grown, people everywhere have gotten a powerful new tool for staying connected to the people they love, for making their voices heard, and for building communities and businesses.”
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg painted this rose-colored portrait of his social media company last April, in front of the U.S. Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary committees. He discussed how social justice movements use the network to recruit and organize, charities use it to raise money and businesses use it for growth and job creation. He’s not wrong: like it or not, major tech companies like Facebook, Google and Apple are players in almost every part of our world. They help keep loved ones connected and provide rapid updates on global news.
But in the last few years, society seems to have realized that if you draw back big tech’s PR curtain of positivity and heartwarming baby videos, the levers are being pulled by shareholders and corporate leaders ruthlessly pursuing profits while doing their best to avoid government interference at all costs.
DOPE has already discussed the downside of this approach as it relates to things like social justice and police work. But the negative impacts are also felt in industries with legal grey areas. Even in an era of online strain databases and digital dispensary menus, the relentless pursuit of power playing out in the boardrooms of Santa Clara has left cannabis trampled underfoot by tech, reinforcing outdated and incorrect stereotypes of the plant. All this for a crusade that looks more futile with each passing day: allowing tech companies to maintain full autonomy over the way their creations are governed.
How is Big Tech Throttling Cannabis?
Last summer, Marijuana Moment reported on Facebook “shadow banning” the official page for California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control, the agency responsible for regulating the Golden State’s legal marijuana industry. A shadow banned page is not removed, but instead is hidden from search results and restricted in organic reach. This is a practice commonly used for right-wing extremists and fake news pages, not official state departments. In April, it was reported that a Facebook group for medical patients in Maryland had been taken down, despite the community only discussing the plant and explicitly disallowing any talk of sales or distribution. These moves reflect a simple motive.
“If you go back to Mark Zuckerberg’s hearing last year, the people who dissected that did a beautiful job pointing out how desperately Facebook is trying to avoid regulation,” says Ricardo Baca, former editor of The Cannabist and founder/CEO of Grasslands: A Journalism-Minded Agency. Baca, who has been called one of the most powerful people in America’s marijuana industry, moderated a panel about media regulation at this year’s National Cannabis Policy Summit in Washington, D.C. He spoke with DOPE by phone about how big of a challenge it still is for even non-plant-touching cannabis businesses to use major technology networks.
“[For big media companies] it’s an easy call – weed is [federally] illegal in the United States of America, so, therefore, they are not going to allow these businesses to buy ads or sponsor posts on their platform,” says Baca.
The issue doesn’t end with Facebook – until 2015, Apple did not allow any apps related to cannabis, and still only allows access to users in legal states. Earlier this year, Google made headlines when they announced they would not allow any apps to process cannabis sales, even in legal states with recreational industries.
Even if social content isn’t directly related to the plant itself, big tech companies are erring on the side of caution. Baca told us a story of how he hand-crafted hundreds of incense packets to use as promotional merchandise and attempted to boost an Instagram image of them but was rejected – ostensibly because the incense packets had the name of his company, one that works with a federally illegal industry.
There’s bipartisan agreement that things need to change with the way we regulate big tech companies. Multiple prominent Democratic presidential candidates have called for an investigation into breaking up Facebook, while President Donald Trump himself has tweeted multiple times about social media censoring or unfairly banning conservatives.
No matter how many pictures of budding plants or green-themed apps tech companies remove from their platforms, it appears that federal judgment day will soon be upon them. In the meantime, cannabis companies will continue to suffer as a key channel for business success in today’s era remains restricted or completely cut off. However, some experts are hopeful it won’t be this way forever.
A Brighter, More Digital Future
Many in the industry feel federal legalization will be something of a cure-all for the problem tech companies have with cannabis.
“People generally feel that federal legalization is key,” Baca says. “I believe that most of these issues will be solved when that does happen … most of the issues exist because of the current state versus federal clashes. They happen in every sector, with every agency.”
And despite the challenges, plenty of creative, ambitious entrepreneurs are using the power of tech to build connections and provide industry access to people who may have otherwise been cut off.
Sirita Wright, an experienced digital marketing consultant and actress, co-founded EstroHaze to connect women and communities of color to cannabis. “We use storytelling via technology to achieve that,” Wright tells DOPE through email. “A key reason why we started EstroHaze was because we were not seeing black women represented in the mainstream cannabis conversation … so it’s been important to create content that reflects that, and serving up the content on the platforms where our audience is most active is crucial. Instagram and Facebook have been especially awesome,” she says.
While tech’s restrictive policies on cannabis and related content may make life difficult for businesses that depend on the plant, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for them to thrive online. And with federal legalization on the horizon, companies in our fledgling industry may soon get a fair crack at the opportunities Zuckerberg boasted about to Congress last year, creating a much bigger pie for everyone to cut a slice from.