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Facebook’s War on Weed Is Totally Legal, But It Still Sucks

Just another reason to reconsider our total reliance on a handful of social media sites.

It's rare to get online these days without being networked through at least one of a handful of massive social media hubs such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Reddit. Each platform offers its users a slightly different experience, which isn't always pleasant. Reddit and Twitter, for example, have each come under fire for their overly tolerant stance on free (read: hate) speech; on the flipside, Facebook and Instagram have been called out for issuing gag orders on what many users feel is legitimate content.

Last year, Facebook drew considerable criticism from the hemp-isphere after shutting down dozens of pages for legal medical marijuana dispensaries. Patients decried the action as limiting access to information that helped them procure and learn about their medicine, while cannabusiness owners were indignant about their dispensaries being flagged as illegal commerce. But when the (pot) smoke cleared, nothing had changed other than a greater awareness of our near-total dependency on the whims of the modern gatekeepers of free speech.

As might be expected, upset users claimed that Facebook's so-called "war on weed" was in violation of their first amendment rights and many businesses scrambled to get Facebook to reinstate their pages without success. But according to Bradley Shear, a digital rights lawyer who has worked with several clients on Facebook-related issues, the company is totally within its rights to pull the plug on any content on the platform.

"When you're using Facebook, you have to agree to their terms of service," Shear told me during a phone call. "For those who claim it's free speech, well you're on their playground and they make the rules. There's no first amendment right to have a Facebook page."

Facebook offers a blanket set of community standards for users around the world. In the absence of censoring algorithms (like the one Zuckerberg is allegedly developing for China), it is unlikely that they will make exceptions for content in states where cannabis is legal, since in most places around the world the plant is still highly regulated and illegal. So while Motherboard can post pictures of weed and promote stories of weed and not get taken down (since we're trafficking in dank information, not dank nugs), anything that facilitates the sale of cannabis is a no go on the platform. The problem is that what counts as "attempts by private individuals to purchase, sell, or trade...marijuana" can often be less clear cut than it sounds and results in strictly informational pages being shuttered as well.

When I reached out to Facebook for comment on shutting down informational pages related to cannabis, a spokesperson directed me to the community guidelines.

"In order to maintain a safe environment on Facebook, we have Community Standards that describe what is and is not allowed on the service," the spokesperson said. "Anyone can report content to us if they think it violates our standard…and our teams will remove the content if there is a violation."

Read More: The Big Business of Making a Cannabis Surveillance State

Although Facebook and other social media platforms are legally entitled to takedown cannabis-related pages at will, such actions are not without serious consequences for its users. Hilary Bricken, a partner at the law firm Harris Bricken that specializes in cannabis law, said the firm has experienced similar problems when they tried to advertise on Google. The search engine blocked them from placing ads, citing their subject matter as illegal, even though they weren't selling legal counsel, not drugs.

Image: Daniel Oberhaus

Given the (increasingly) tenuous legal status of cannabis in the US, Bricken sees Facebook's attitude toward pot as a matter of shutting down political speech. Although she acknowledges that Facebook is totally within its rights to shutdown pages it deems inappropriate, Bricken laments that the social media giant hasn't taken a more progressive approach to marijuana.

"The promotion of cannabis, when we're talking about it from a social justice or advocacy perspective, is powerful political speech," Bricken told me over the phone. "These companies are eliminating really robust debate and political speech in an abundance of caution because whatever robot soldiers they have see the word 'cannabis' and assume this is an unlawful commercial sale. They don't want to violate federal law by allowing a social media Silk Road to go down."

No one is pushing Facebook to allow the trafficking of cannabis on its platform, but according to Olivia Mannix, co-founder of Cannabrands, the first marketing agency specifically for cannabis, social media is "critical" to facilitating legitimate business in meatspace. Since cannabusinesses are reliant on the very platforms which can shut them down on a whim, it can feel as though they unfairly bear the brunt of Facebook's community standards. But after years of seeing her clients' advertisements get nixed by legacy media outlets and social media platforms, she's learned a thing or two about how cannabusinesses can operate on Facebook without violating its terms of use.

"If your profile has too many promos, coupons, even your store location [Facebook] could potentially see that as illicit and shut down the page," Mannix told me. "What we've suggested is to use their Facebook pages as an informational and educational page, and to stay away from slang words that might flag the algorithms like 'ganja,' 'dope,' or 'stoner.'"

Yet even with these best practices, many of her clients still experience problems. She cited the Impact Network, a community of patients and medical professionals which was recently shut down, even though it was only used for information, not commerce. It was only after Mannix brought the issue to Facebook's attention that the page was reinstated. Even so, Mannix continues to seek creative solutions to the restrictive marijuana marketing conditions online such as Kushmoji, an emoji library of cannabis related-apps.

Ultimately, Facebook's war on weed underscores our over reliance on a handful of massive corporations to police what we can and can't say online. It's another reason to believe we need more alternatives to Facebook, and platforms like Mastodon are slowly proving the strength of this position. But until we have a sativa-friendly social network or full legalization at the national level, it's probably best to leave your thoughts on #dank #nugs in IRL.