Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Why is Facebook shutting down pot shop pages?

Posted By on Tue, Mar 1, 2016 at 10:31 AM

Facebook is drawing a line, and apparently recreational pot shops are on the wrong side of it.

Despite the fact that either recreational or medical marijuana is legal is 23 states and the District of Columbia, owners of local recreational marijuana stores were confused when their Facebook pages disappeared without much explanation. Several shop owners told the Inlander that they were not given a warning, nor a specific reason as to why their pages — and photos, posts, comments and followers — are under siege. 

Steve Burks, owner of Tree House Club in the Spokane Valley, says Facebook sent him an email saying his shop's page violated "Facebook Page terms," but did not go into specifics. He clicked on the link to contest Facebook's decision, but got no response and was forced to start an entirely new account. He lost about 20,000 followers. 

According to Facebook's Community Standards, the site prohibits "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."

But in states where weed is legal, why are medical dispensaries or recreational shops being lumped in with "unauthorized dealers?" Some legal experts suspect it has to do with the product's legality at the federal level. 

Although in general Facebook allows posts advocating for (or against) legalization or espousing health benefits of marijuana, a spokesperson clarified in an emailed response that posts advertising its sale are not allowed. Also, Facebook employees only respond to reports of adverse content, and do not actively monitor the site.  
"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 wrote. "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."

"It may not be legal in the feds' eyes," says Mary Jane Smith, owner of MJ's Pot Shop in Pullman. "But in the state's eyes we are. That's where I'm confused." 

The folks at Satori tried three times to restart their page, only to be rejected each time. Erin Moore, a manager at the Northside shop, says they began inviting customers to a private group, but that doesn't make up for the thousands of dollars the company paid a public relations firm to make their now-defunct page look legit. 

"It's a full-time job, and we pay them for thousands of hours they put into these pages," Moore says of the company's Facebook and Instagram pages, which were both taken down recently. "We don't want this to keep happening, but we haven't been given a reason how to keep it from happening." 

Jason Clerget, a partner at the marketing firm Propaganda Creative, says disappearing Facebook and Instagram (which Facebook owns) pages have been an issue for several of his pot-related clients. He's even tried manipulating Facebook's settings to only show posts to users in Washington state who are 21 or older, but Facebook still apparently disapproves.

Washington outlets are not alone. The BBC reported that businesses in at least six states with legal marijuana have had Facebook pages disabled recently, including medical dispensary pages in New Jersey, Arizona and Nevada.

The biggest thing Spokane-area shops seem to be missing as their Facebook pages are shut down is the ability to communicate with their customers. For Smith, Facebook was a convenient way for customers to ask about her products and deals. It was also a way for her to document previous sales and milestones for her business. 

"It was a history of our shop starting from the day we opened," Smith says. "All those pictures are gone. That's what bothers me, but there's not much I can do about it." 

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Mitch Ryals

Mitch covers cops, crime and courts for the Inlander. He moved to Spokane in 2015 from his hometown of St. Louis, and is a graduate of the University of Missouri. He likes bikes, beer and baseball. And coffee. He dislikes lemon candy, close-mindedness and liars. And temperatures below 40 degrees.