Legal cannabis dispensaries in Alaska — including the patients and customers they serve — (once again) appear not to be welcome on Facebook. According to reports, Facebook either suspended or entirely deleted Facebook business pages of at least half a dozen legal cannabis retail dispensaries in Alaska.
While Google, Facebook, and Twitter have long prohibited cannabis businesses from advertising on their networks, Facebook has taken things a step further. Issuing no warnings or corrective actions, Facebook began aggressively shutting down legal cannabis business pages in Alaska on the 4th of July weekend.
Given the tight legal advertising restrictions in the legal cannabis industry, many dispensaries rely on organic (unpaid) marketing channels to build their brand and connect with customers.
“(Facebook) has been huge for us. That’s where almost all our advertising comes from,” Bryant Thorp, owner of Arctic Herbery, told Alaska Dispatch News. Bryant has had previous issues with Facebook and has increasingly been turning to Twitter and Instagram to boost his retail store’s following.
Timing of Facebook Takedown Adds Insult to Injury
Facebook chose to shut down many dispensary business pages over the 4th of July weekend, timing that many in the local Alaska cannabis community found odd. The timing coincided with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s visit to Alaska that holiday weekend.
Guillermo Bravo, Guillermo Bravo, CEO of Foottraffik, a cannabis dispensary marketing agency, also believes the crackdown unfairly impacts local cannabis businesses. “Major technology companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and others continue to restrict paid advertising for cannabis dispensaries which is agreeable, but limiting organic marketing through profiles is unfair,” said Bravo. “Limiting social media profiles makes it more and more challenging for dispensaries to market to their customers.”
Is Facebook Sending Mixed Signals to the Cannabis Industry?
This isn’t the first time Facebook has initiated a crackdown on legal cannabis businesses. Early in 2016, Facebook and Facebook-owned Instagram shut down nearly 100 cannabis dispensary pages of businesses located in Colorado, New Jersey, Arizona, Maine, Oregon, and Washington.
Sending more mixed signals on cannabis than Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Trump Administration, Arielle Aryah, a Facebook spokesperson at the time of the early-2016 crackdown told Westword, a Colorado alternative news publication: “Facebook does not allow content that promotes the sale of marijuana regardless of state or country,” said Aryah. “This includes marijuana dispensaries. We do allow marijuana-advocacy content as long as it is not promoting the sale of the drug.”
Nonetheless, during the 2016 purge of cannabis-related pages, Facebook left most companies alone, leaving many in the cannabis industry confused as to what they’ll allow versus what they won’t allow.
Jana Weltzin, Esq., an Anchorage-based attorney specializing in recreational marijuana business law and regulation compliance, speculates the timing may have had to do more with Nevada officially going legal with recreational cannabis the July 4th weekend, than Zuckerberg’s visit to Alaska.
“While this is no more than pure speculation, some believe the timing has less to do with Mark Zuckerberg visiting Alaska, as it has to do with Nevada state opening recreational stores over the July 4th weekend,” said Weltzin. “Facebook wants to follow federal law, so periodically we see these crackdowns. Who knows? We didn’t see a crackdown on Nevada dispensary pages, so maybe Facebook wanted to deflect scrutiny by cracking down on a smaller market?”
Facebook Claims Marijuana Businesses Don’t Conform to Community Terms and Standards
Facebook claims dispensaries do not adhere to the Regulated Goods section of Facebook’s Community Terms and Standards, and periodically uses these terms to target dispensaries, shutting them down with little warning.
Being legal for medical or recreational use in over half of the states across the U.S., but illegal federally, cannabis is in a legally murky gray area. According to rules defined by Facebook’s Regulated Goods section, Facebook prohibits “any attempts by private individuals to purchase, sell, or trade prescription drugs, marijuana, firearms or ammunition.”
While the Community Standards page may clearly outline prohibitions against unauthorized persons from selling, buying, or trading drugs and firearms, their decision to suddenly ban dispensaries from hosting pages appears inconsistent with policy.
Nothing in their Community Standards says anything about authorized persons or companies operating a legitimate business page as long as they are not engaging in direct commerce through their page.
It’s a gray area because few (if any) legitimate dispensaries engage in selling cannabis through their Facebook pages, yet are still subject to surprise shutdowns. In fact, most dispensaries use their page like other companies — to post their hours of operation and maintain a connection to their customers.
Predictably, dispensaries are feeling shocked and betrayed. “We face challenges every day running a legal cannabis business, but this is a disappointing one,” said Keenan Hollister, co-owner of Pakalolo in Fairbanks. “It feels like an attack on commerce in our state.”
What Can Cannabis Dispensaries and Retailers Do to Not Get Shut Down by Facebook?
Given the mixed signals from Facebook, what can dispensaries do to protect their pages from being nixed by Facebook? “Given the ambiguity of Facebook’s guidelines and the randomness of their crackdowns, there isn’t anything a dispensary can do to ensure 100 percent that they won’t get shut down,” said Weltzin. “But, dispensaries can follow some common sense practices to minimize risk.”
Bravo agrees. “While dispensaries can never be totally protected from a Facebook crackdown until state and federal laws are reconciled, they can at least take measures to ‘fly under the radar’ for now.”
“If you create profiles on the aforementioned networks, you don’t own the property and can be purged at any moment,” adds Bravo. “Proceed with precaution, and look at other ways to invest in marketing that will provide results long terms like SEO, loyalty & rewards programs, text messaging and email marketing.”
Further, Bravo advises dispensary clients to invest in their website and customer database, including phone numbers and emails, so that they own the data. “As a dispensary, you 100% own the assets, and nobody can take them away from you,” said Bravo.
Both Weltzin and Bravo offered similar advice and best practices dispensaries should follow to protect themselves, including:
- Do not ever promote product! Specials, promotions, pictures of flower or edibles, should all be avoided. Instead, dispensaries should focus on maintaining visibility with their customers, while building loyalty. Focus on sharing educational content (e.g. safety, new research, clinical information, etc.)
- Second, dispensary owners should always make a backup of their Facebook page. In the event the page does get shut down, by having a backup of the page, owners don’t have to try to recreate everything from scratch. And, it will be easier re-inviting customers to the page.
While Facebook’s real motivations for the ban remain unclear, what is clear is that it is a disservice to the small business owners and tens of thousands of patients and customers who rely on Facebook groups to stay updated on their preferred dispensary.