Article by Sam Riches, Growth Op
The origin story for Mothers Mary, an online community of mothers who consume cannabis, begins on Facebook.
Annie Bertrand and Jordana Zabitsky, two moms from Montreal who were frustrated by the lack of options for maternal mental health care, started the group about three years ago. It was a place for like-minded moms to offer advice and share their experiences and discuss how cannabis consumption fits into their lives.
About a year and a half after starting the group, it had grown to more than 5,000 members. Around that same time, Facebook started to notice what the group was talking about.
“They said that if group admins are not doing a good enough job moderating the [cannabis] content, then the group would get shut down,” Bertrand tells The GrowthOp.
Not wanting to lose what they had built, they took action and started removing any posts that referenced grey market cannabis businesses or products. But then something strange started to happen.
“We started getting more and more of these notifications about violations,” Bertrand says. Fearful that they would continue to run afoul of Facebook’s moderation, despite their best efforts, they decided to leave the platform and build their own website.
“We just fully walked away from those 5,000 people because it was just too stressful every day waking up and wondering, is everything that we’ve worked on going to be gone?”
The resulting migration to their own platform resulted in a plunge in membership but Bertrand says they had little choice.
“It took a lot of months to come to terms with it,” she says. “But we just realized we had all our eggs in Mark Zuckerberg’s basket and he doesn’t want to hold it.”
Mothers Mary is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the unchecked power tech giants have over what types of information is allowed to be shared. Controversial political ads, for example, are allowed to spread and proliferate across Facebook without consequence, but content focused on therapeutic drug use faces tighter restrictions.
Everyone from educators to retailers, across cannabis, hemp, and psychedelics, have run into problems on the platforms that combined have more than four billion users. As Canada approaches three years of legal cannabis, and the U.S. and Mexico work towards reform at the federal level, many believe the problem is only getting worse.
“So sick of Facebook / Instagram,” actor turned cannabis farmer Jim Belushitweeted last month. “They shadow banned my farms Facebook page Belushi’s Farm and our Instagram. PLUS, they constantly take down our content. Don’t they know cannabis [is] a medicine?”
Facebook, which acquired Instagram in 2012 for US$1 billion, prohibits “attempts by individuals, manufacturers, and retailers to purchase, sell, or trade non-medical drugs, pharmaceutical drugs, and marijuana,” according to the company’s community standards.
On Instagram, the wording is similar, if not a little more pointed. “Instagram doesn’t allow people or organizations to use the platform to advertise or sell marijuana, regardless of the seller’s state or country.” Additionally, Instagram doesn’t allow cannabis businesses to use any of the promotional tools afforded to other businesses.
Neither network responded to The GrowthOp’s request for comment.
These policies are in addition to Health Canada’s regulations, which ban celebrity endorsements and prohibit branding that may evoke a sense of “glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring.”
Kendra Nicholson, a Toronto-based consultant who works with cannabis retailers, says that, given the restraints around cannabis marketing and the outright ban across most social media platforms, most in the industry operate knowing that their accounts could be flagged or shadow banned or deactivated at any given moment.
“I feel like it’s generally been the worst it’s been, in my experience, in this past month,” Nicholson says, noting that a client recently had an Instagram post removed that was simply a photo of a legal pre-roll, with no wording or messaging about anything being sold.
“It’s just such a risk to potentially lose what little you have,” she says. “We’re all kind of biding our time in terms of when and where your account could be taken away from you.”
While some networks, like Twitter or Clubhouse, offer more leeway in terms of what type of content is allowed — and other cannabis-friendly networks, like Cannabuzz, have emerged — there is an echo chamber on these platforms. The reach for new consumers is limited, as it’s mostly the same people, who are already interested in cannabis, talking about the same things.
And it’s not just retailers or businesses that are affected. Sarah Lovegrove is a cannabis and psychedelic educator in B.C. A former ER nurse, she left nursing in 2018 and moved into education after using cannabis and psychedelics to treat her post-traumatic stress disorder.
Lovegrove says that her Instagram account has fallen under greater scrutiny as she’s become more vocal about psychedelic therapies. She recently hosted a workshop with another educator, who has yet to be a target of the network’s moderation, and though both educators posted the same image, with the same wording, it was only Lovegrove’s post that was removed.
“Instagram is so widely used and has such potential and so does Facebook. But there’s a lot of limits,” she tells The GrowthOp from Nanaimo. “It limits our capacity to provide public education in any kind of accessible way. It just perpetuates stigma and dangerous use of substances. People are using these substances whether they’re educated about it or not. And it creates a distinct environmental harm if we are not educating around it.”
Even hemp companies, including those that produce bioplastics, or paper, or superfoods, not necessarily CBD, have issues on social media.
Morris Beegle is the president of We Are For Better Alternatives (WAFBA), his companies include hemp paper and clothing, among other ventures.
“All this stuff should be fair game and shouldn’t be limited because there’s a hemp component or hemp ingredient,” he tells The GrowthOp from Colorado. “I think Congress made it clear with the Farm Bill. Canada has made it clear for 20 years that hemp foods are legal and Europe has made it clear for 20 plus years, with hemp foods and building materials and bioplastics. I think that eventually, we’ll get there. But maybe it’s going to take federal legalization here in the United States or decriminalization.”
Beegle also runs an annual trade show and expo that involves hundreds of hemp businesses. He says most, if not all, have run into issues on social media.
His problems started around 2015, he says, when his hemp paper company shared a Facebook post of the Declaration of Independence printed on hemp paper.
“Ever since getting flagged in 2015, I have had problems with all of my brands, none of which sell CBD,” he says. “But because we’ve got hemp in our name, we’ve been flagged and so being able to boost posts or advertise has been very problematic.”