The Power of Instagram: Marijuana Marketing and 21 Century Ambivalence

As ubiquitous as the marijuana presence is in the social media sphere, it is not always a clear-cut mutually beneficial relationship, as indicated by Instagram. The social media giant has come under fire for seemingly arbitrarily suspending or deactivating accounts of marijuana-based companies and organizations. There are shows and specials about marijuana on Netflix. The vast majority of American citizens advocate for either making marijuana medically or recreationally legal, and states have followed suit, with 36 approving the medical use of marijuana while multiple others have either fully legalized marijuana, or moved to decriminalize personal usage. And yet Instagram seems to be lagging behind the times. 

As Evergreen Market, a greater-Seattle based marijuana dispensary points out, “Despite these marks of change we’ve had to restart our Instagram presence with our new account @evergreenmarket, along with an increasing number of other companies in the cannabis realm. Progress is happening everywhere in the real world; so why is it that social media companies refuse to join the rest of us and instead continue marijuana prohibition online? Cannabis Instagram accounts are ready for fair play.” 

Nor is Evergreen Market alone. Cannabis marketer Colin Bambury, who works with multiple businesses and individuals looking to make their brand or services known, says this aggressive deactivation policy on the part of Instagram is “one of the biggest pain points in my life.” A recent article in MJBizdaily reports that Instagram has deactivated Bambury’s accounts for “breaching the social media platform’s terms of service or for a user complaint – even when Bambury is certain he’s following the rules.”

These are more than minor annoyances or small inconveniences. For people or businesses that rely on a robust social media presence, they are a significant hindrance to doing business and maintaining a loyal customer base in an increasingly competitive market. 

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However, social media is generally a pit of ambivalence when it comes to marketing ganja. As a recent Forbes article puts it, “While much of the hubbub around social media companies stems from the disinformation campaign in the 2016 election and its fallout, the cannabis industry, which is legal to some degree in the majority of states but remains federally prohibited, finds itself suffering from the same lack of transparency in regards to speech policies and account bans.” 

Take for example Bess Byers, known online as Cannabess. Byers, an outspoken Seattle-based cannabis marketer and social-media influencer, has had her Instagram account shut down numerous times for violations the social media giant says transgresses their content guidelines. Byers is frustrated with the company, stating, “It’s been financially stressful. I have campaigns that have been confirmed, but obviously, that can’t work if I’m locked out of my account.” 

It what seems like an ongoing tension that is never resolved, Instagram continues to delete or suspend accounts of marijuana-based businesses. And though there are measures in place to restore the accounts, it seems to have become a “wear them down” tactic, resulting in a defeatist attitude. Bambury argues, “Before, if (a cannabis brand) got deleted, it was a big deal. Everyone rallied around them and tried to help them come back. And now, everyone I know basically in the cannabis industry has had an account deleted at some point.”

Many in the industry seem frustrated with the capricious nature with which Instagram uses authority to suspend accounts that are connected to marijuana. Mitch Pfeifer, the CEO and co-founder of Respect My Region, a “full-blown lifestyle and music platform that supports local artists, brands, and creatives who believe in the value of community and culture” captured this ambivalence, arguing: 

. . .when our account was shut down I was pissed! I’m never scared of a challenge to bounce back from a loss but we’ve spent a LOT of time and advertising money through Instagram and it’s parent’s company Facebook. Our key staff has paid their bills off work using these platforms for the better half of the last decade. Amongst all the changes and tips that fade, we’ve been here spending hella time and money. We’ve followed the rules, and don’t profit from the sale of cannabis so it’s super ironic that we were shut down for cannabis content.

Pfeifer is also quick to point out the underlying hypocrisy of the Instagram policy in relation to media stars, saying, “It’s ironic as musicians and celebrities have used crazy drug imagery on social media without slaps on the wrist while advertising products when their whole appeal is built upon a lifestyle consisting of drug use.” 

To be fair, Instagram is responding to the fact that despite the legalization and decriminalization efforts taking place at the state and local levels, marijuana is still fully illegal at the federal level. This puts Instagram, and other social media companies, in an awkward position of upholding the federal laws around marijuana without violating the free speech of the marijuana-oriented companies and organizations that use their platform.

Even Pfeifer acknowledges this ambivalence, stating “This is not only a federally illegal drug but also a substance that’s just now coming into legal form in any capacity of a consumer good. Big platforms that have large shareholders and can be political victims won’t be quick to jump on board.” As Raki Wane, the policy communications manager at Instagram puts it, “First and foremost, the promotion of sale of cannabis products is not permitted on our platform.” 

At the end of the day, however, it really comes down to a lack of clarity, at least in the eyes of the marijuana companies. Lisa Buffo, the founder and CEO of the Cannabis Marketing Association in Denver, frames it this way: “If we had clarity, we’d be shouting it from the rooftops. We are working on it but don’t have clear guidance from them [Instagram] directly.” 

Meanwhile, things grind exceedingly fine and slow in D.C. as the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act gets made into political sausage, where it will meet likely stiff resistance in the U.S. Senate. 


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