When Canada legalized recreational marijuana in 2018, there was a sense of victory for many. Vilified for decades, cannabis users finally had the notion that they were about to be vindicated. Emerging from their hot-boxed rooms into a brave new world free of guilt and suspicion. While there is no question that legalization has helped raise the collective stigma surrounding cannabis usage, it hasn’t been the victory the industry had hoped for. In many respects, the perspective that marijuana remains a stoner’s dirty little secret is still very much alive.
When Cultivated started operations, the company went through all the applicable steps to promote the business. The same steps any other modern business wouldn’t be challenged by. A Facebook page was created, ads were paid for and distributed, and Facebook groups were curated. Google Ads were submitted for approval. But regardless of the fact that recreational marijuana had become legal, every effort was thwarted.
Google flat out rejected the ads, stating a violation of their “Dangerous Products or Services” policy. Lumped in with cocaine, crystal meth and heroin, Google has identified marijuana as a recreational drug. There is no mention of illegal or legal. And interestingly, there is no mention of alcohol as a recreational drug. But it’s likely not entirely Google’s fault. The feds in the United States still have cannabis listed as a class 1 drug. In other words, very much illegal federally. Although Google has a large presence on Canadian soil, they don’t seem apt to modify their ad policies to appease global influences.
Facebook follows similar, but more confusing lines. A user can create a cannabis-oriented Facebook page, but strictly for informational purposes. Any indications that the page is intended to sell marijuana – through ads or links to online stores – end up with a slapped wrist. If the owner of the page persists, the page actually gets deleted by Facebook. This is what Cultivated Cannabis experienced, losing contact with over 2500 connected Facebook users. Although they have been able to start a new page, building an audience that size takes time.
A subsection of Facebook’s prohibited content policy lists Drugs & Drug-Related Products. The specific wording of the policy, once again, dictates that ads cannot promote the sale “of illegal, prescription, or recreational drugs.” Unlike Google, Zuckerberg’s lawyers have at least differentiated between illegal and legal drugs. But just like Google, they have neglected to list alcohol as a recreational drug. Strange how booze keeps slipping right through.
And it isn’t just social media that is lagging behind the times. Online payment processing channels that have provided so much benefit to digital businesses are also balking against the Canadian pot industry. Paypal, Stripe and Square all have restrictive policies with an apparent prejudice against cannabis. But even without the roadblock of internal policy, the fluidity of commerce these days is also a stopping point. Payment processing companies are the classic middle man between the consumer and the banks. And the banks that these companies partner with are largely based in the United States. Even if a processor wanted to assist the cannabis market, as soon as that money transfers borders the US federal law once again kicks in. Since federal law trumps state laws, even banks in legalized states won’t accept the payments.
While the times might be a-changin’, there is still clearly work to do. Unless there are changes to the US federal law, our legalized industry will likely continue to face these challenges. But the market is growing. Hopefully once provinces have their regional dispensaries running at full steam the scales will tip in our favour. It’s not like nobody wants your money, it’s just become difficult to give it to them.