Why is Facebook shutting down pages about marijuana?

Facebook has over one billion daily active users, but it would apparently prefer that none of them sell or talk about selling marijuana. The social network has been shuttering pages and accounts for legitimate cannabis businesses in the United States.

23 states in the U.S. have made marijuana legal, including for recreational uses in some states. Despite the shift in policy toward decriminalizing the drug in many locations, a report from the BBC found that Facebook has been closing pages for businesses that operate legally in states that allow the sale and purchase of cannabis.

“In order to maintain a safe environment on Facebook, we have Community Standards that describe what is and is not allowed on the service. Anyone can report content to us if they think it violates our standards. Our teams review these reports rapidly and will remove the content if there is a violation,” a Facebook spokesperson told the Daily Dot. 

It is Facebook’s policy to not allow any content that promotes the sale of marijuana, regardless of the state or country the business is located in. This policy includes medical dispensaries. Facebook does allow marijuana advocacy on its platform, but draws a distinction between supporting the drug’s legalization and promoting the sale of the drug.

In Facebook’s Community Standards—the policies that every user agrees to but likely doesn’t read when they sign up for the service—it states, “We prohibit any attempts by unauthorized dealers to purchase, sell, or trade prescription drugs, marijuana, firearms or ammunition. If you post an offer to purchase or sell alcohol, tobacco, or adult products, we expect you to comply with all applicable laws and carefully consider the audience for that content. We do not allow you to use Facebook’s payment tools to sell or purchase regulated goods on our platform.”

This seems to be at conflict with Facebook’s enforcement; the Community Standards suggests “unauthorized dealers” are prohibited and that offers to purchase or sell must “comply with all applicable laws.” However, Facebook has been closing the pages of legitimate businesses participating in the legal sale of marijuana. Their actions meet the Community Standards, but they are still removed from the platform.

Pages for three of the five Alternative Treatment Centers in New Jersey—a state where medicinal marijuana is legal—were shut down last week, according to NBC News. The reason cited for the takedowns was failure to comply with Facebook’s terms.

Facebook’s inconsistent enforcement has made the platform uninviting for businesses that operate legally within their states. Flowhub, the maker of software that helps cannabis businesses ensure they are operating efficiently and within compliance of the law, is one of many companies within the field that is wary of using Facebook.

Kyle Sherman, the CEO of Flowhub, said that most cannabis companies are “flying blind” when it comes to Facebook because the social network hasn’t clearly articulated what is and what isn’t allowed to be posted. 

“It’s just information…No one is selling, it’s not a marketplace,” Sherman said. “What’s the difference between [sharing information on Facebook and] Googling something?”

Facebook may opt to paint with a broad brush in these situations to prevent sale across state lines to places where the act is still illegal, but it’s still not clear as to why. A case could be made that because Facebook pages are accessible from everywhere, not just in the location they operate, that it could appear that the pages are promoting the sale of marijuana in places that it’s prohibited.

Considering that no sales of any kind are allowed to take place, nor is any of it using Facebook’s own payment system, it seems unlikely that it would be directly facilitating an illegal sale, and legitimate businesses are likely just as uneasy about breaking the law as Facebook is.

Sherman sees dispensaries and other legal businesses operating on Facebook as a chance for the platform to help create legitimacy and fight black market options that operate under the radar. 

For Sherman, it’s still not entirely clear if his page will remain up or if it will come down at some point—a risk that makes it difficult to utilize the platform. “Maybe we’re protected, we don’t even touch the plant. We’re a technology company, but we sure have been nervous,” he explained.

The uneasiness for marijuana-centric companies and enthusiasts worried about having their accounts shut down has driven users to more friendly platforms. 

Places like Reddit and Twitter, where content posting rules are considerably more lenient, have built of massive communities focused on weed culture. The hugely popular /r/trees subreddit has over 750,000 subscribers and a considerable amount of daily activity, for example. 

Flowhub has also found considerable success on MassRoots, a social platform built entirely around cannabis content. Sherman said his business has over 30,000 followers on MassRoots, many of whom regularly engage with posts, including photos. 

Not only would Sherman like to have a similar experience on Facebook and the Facebook-owned Instagram, he’d like to spend some money advertising on the social networks as well. “We have a ton of money that we are able to spend on marketing. I would love to give that to Facebook and start promoting our business through Facebook ads,” he says. 

Sherman said he would run targeted ads, directed toward people living in areas where marijuana is legal. But for now, Flowhub will continue to not spend money through Facebook. “We can’t run those ads because we take a chance of bringing our Facebook page to light, which could get shut down, and then we could be completely shut down from the Facebook community.” 

Because of the popularity and ubiquity of Facebook, a presence on the platform is essentially a necessity. But the failure to clearly articulate policy surrounding certain content businesses and individuals will never utilize the service to the extent they would like. 

The issue for members of the cannabis community mirrors some of those who have fought Facebook’s position on non-pornographic nudity. Users have often been left with more questions than answers when it comes to what Facebook uses as acceptable, with wishy-washy language and unclear exceptions to the rules. Instead of being left to guess what is allowed, cannabis enthusiasts would much rather Facebook just be blunt.

H/T Boing Boing | Photo via Katheirne Hitt/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

AJ Dellinger

AJ Dellinger

AJ Dellinger is a seasoned technology writer whose work has appeared in Digital Trends, International Business Times, and Newsweek. In 2018, he joined Gizmodo as the nights and weekend editor.