By the time they opened this spring, the founders of the Peake ReLeaf medical cannabis shop in Rockville had already created a social media following.
They knew that promoting cannabis on Instagram — often the platform of choice in the marijuana industry — can help build a customer base.
The first account survived into the summer, until Instagram shut it down. The backup account lasted a few months longer. For that one, they had no backup. All of a sudden, customers and would-be customers who had been getting steady images of the “Featured Flower” and promos for “Waxy Wednesday” were no longer receiving the information.
“You have hundreds of hours of work that just gets deleted,” said Tracey Miller, one of the shop’s founders.
Legalized marijuana sellers in other places, such as California and Colorado, have grappled with this problem for years. But it is new in Maryland, which launched sales of medical cannabis a year ago. Revenue from state-sanctioned pot businesses so far in Maryland is approaching $100 million, according to state officials.
The federal prohibition on buying and selling marijuana puts radio and television ads out of reach, which is why sellers rely on social media to boost their brands. But Facebook and Instagram don’t allow the promotion of marijuana sales regardless of state or country.
That means no advertising discounts or listing prices or mentioning there is product for sale. The platforms prohibit marijuana dispensaries from providing their phone numbers or street addresses.
Instagram and Facebook do allow marijuana advocacy and education, which leaves room for sellers to communicate with customers. That effort, however, has led to frustration for many.
“We spend a lot of time building up the community and educating patients, and then with one fell swoop, they just delete the account, and it’s done,” said Michael Chiaramonte, a physician who owns Haven dispensary in Brandywine and is president of the Maryland Medical Dispensary Association.
“All those patients that you were in contact with, you’re no longer in contact with,” he said, “for what seems to be an arbitrary reason, when you feel like you have read the policies and that you’re compliant.”
Instagram and other social media services are paying more attention to drug sales on their platforms, with a growing focus on preventing abuses that range from promoting the sale of illegal drugs to Russian meddling to fake news.
Instagram and Facebook police their pages through a combination of human review and automation, with systems for detecting images of drugs, as well as prices, phone numbers and usernames for other social media accounts. But the process doesn’t always work correctly.
The Washington Post sent Instagram 16 accounts created by Maryland cannabis sellers that had been wiped out for supposed violations. The company responded that 11 had been appropriately removed. But five had been shut down in error, and the company restored them Thursday.
“We apologize for the mistake,” Karina Newton, Instagram’s head of public policy, said in a statement.
As more state cannabis markets open nationwide, more vendors’ social media accounts are getting wiped out, said Natalie Cupps DiBlasi, co-founder of Laced Agency, a California-based advertising firm
“There are a lot of ambitious entrepreneurs out there in hemp- and cannabis-land that just went really for it, and unfortunately got sideswiped,” Cupps DiBlasi said.
She advises businesses to closely follow the guidelines and avoid gray areas.
“You need to have a higher level of professionalism online so that your accounts don’t get pulled,” she said. “The best way to avoid that is to take every safety precaution that you can.”
That includes steering well clear of underage audiences and guiding followers to do likewise. Cannabis companies should write their own social media guidelines, post them publicly and stick to them, Cupps DiBlasi said.
She suggests that marijuana clients note how alcohol sellers brand their products.
“You don’t ever see anybody throw back a beer in a beer commercial,” she said “You see the product in the shot and then people enjoying themselves, but you never really see people actually drinking the beer.”
Maryland, where recreational marijuana remains illegal, is debating how to regulate advertising for medical cannabis. On Thursday, the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission approved restrictions that include a ban on advertising via radio, television and billboards, as well as through social media that fail to verify the user is at least 18. The proposed regulations will be submitted for legislative review.
The commission reported $96 million in medical cannabis sales during the market’s first year of operation. By comparison, Colorado saw $1.5 billion in sales from medical and retail marijuana stores during 2017, up from $684 million in 2014, according to that state’s revenue department.
Having a social media account closed is “a huge problem because we have no means of advertising,” said Mackie Barch, chair of the Maryland Wholesale Medical Cannabis Trade Association and president of the medical cannabis provider Culta.
Culta is on its third Instagram account, Barch said, after accounts were shut down in September and November.
“We had 10,000 followers, we had the largest social following in the state of Maryland, and then they just shut us down,” he said. “We started up again, and they shut us down a second time. So we just got it started again.”