Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. (Romeo Gacad, AFP/Getty Images)

Hey, Mark Zuckerberg: Marijuana businesses deserve social media too

Op-ed: As legal marijuana businesses' Facebook and Instagram accounts are yanked, a social media pro calls on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to help end the war on drugs, arguing cannabis companies shouldn't be shunned in mainstream social media

Dear Mark Zuckerberg,

In my eight years on Facebook, I have been delighted by the ways that you have changed the world. In your inspiring F8 speech last week, you declared: “Whether you want to hang out with a few friends or start a business or solve the world’s problems, the path forward is to connect people. That is how we make progress together.”

Today, I am asking you to use that power to help end the war on drugs.

With your own life story you have shown the world that when one person tells their story, many more will feel less alone as a result. I was inspired by the decision you and your wife, Priscilla, made to share your struggles with your miscarriage on Facebook. Countless women now feel a little lighter, and a little freer of the social stigma that has been so unfairly assigned to miscarriage.

Colorado holds marijuana from two grows over pesticide worries
(Seth McConnell, Denver Post file)

Thank you for that.

You have also proven that businesses can drive social change. A firestorm of rainbow logos were released on social media after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. In a world where the most hateful voices are often the loudest, our Facebook feeds became a rainbow-tinted celebration of equality and love. Businesses and individuals stood side by side in a declaration of equality. Thank you for making that possible.

I’ve built a social media business on the belief that open, human behavior online helps businesses build meaningful relationships with customers. I choose to work with businesses that want to be a force for good, and the majority of my clients are in the legal cannabis sector.

After your visit to San Quentin State Prison, your followers heard your thoughts on the racial bias of the war on drugs. Yet your companies — Facebook and Instagram — regularly and capriciously shut down accounts with cannabis content. Many of those companies are operating within the laws governing their state. Many of those companies are involved in efforts to end the profound racial injustices of the drug war.

Cannabis businesses are in the unique position to bring credibility to the cause of ending the drug war. We can show that business leaders, normal moms and upstanding citizens are embracing sensible drug policy and a regulated marijuana market. Armed with social media, we can normalize use, change minds and change laws.

I’ve spent time on the front lines of normalization as a founding member and the former social strategy director at Women Grow. The organization’s mission is to connect, educate and empower women in the cannabis sector. Social media dovetailed perfectly with those goals. In a little over a year, the company achieved a combined social media reach of 50,000 followers.

I invite you to check out Women Grow’s online communities. You will see that countless women chose to take the plunge into cannabis careers. Chapters were created in prohibition states so that women could organize to change laws. Women found mentors for their budding businesses. Women learned how to talk to their peers and families about their own cannabis use. Friendships were created across geographic lines.

A movement was created.

melissa-etheridge-women-grow-leadership-summit-denver
Singer Melissa Etheridge speaks during the Women Grow Leadership Summit on Feb. 4, 2016, in Denver. (David Zalubowski, The Associated Press)

It was the epitome of a vision that you and I share: “Make the world a more open and connected place.” Women Grow has empowered countless women and men use to social media to “come out of the cannabis closet.” By owning the way we choose to medicate or recreate, individuals can finally be their true selves. They feel empowered further when they receive the support of friends, family and colleagues.

They feel the lightness of a stigma lost.

And every day we worked toward our goal to connect, educate and empower the women in this budding industry, I had a fear that our social media accounts would be shut down.

Social media has become such a driving force in the cannabis industry that the city of Denver now requires that dispensaries and processors that are facing product recalls use their social media channels to broadcast an announcement. That’s right, the Mile High City is telling cannabis companies to violate your companies’ terms of service.

And I am OK with that. The industry should care about the health and welfare of its customers. Product safety is a matter of public health. Reaching out to customers with social media is the most efficient way to do this. Now that social media is such a dominant force in Americans’ lives, individuals go to Facebook when any disaster strikes, and FEMA is there posting critical updates.

I suspect — and hope — you agree with me personally. But this is a business decision, so I write to you as a business owner. I understand your concerns about promoting cannabis in states where it’s still illegal. I understand that federal prohibition offers the veiled threat of racketeering charges to any company operating in multiple states. Everyone in the cannabis industry is aware of this risk.

In meetings, my clients discuss strategies that land people in jail in prohibition states. The majority of those people are black men who are victims of the racist war on drugs. The political winds could shift, but we forge on with a sense of responsibility. If business owners are not willing to take these risks, legalization will not occur nationwide. Access to medicine will be restricted. The war on drugs will keep communities of color oppressed and imprisoned.

To many of us, cannabis legalization is not just about making money, but about using businesses to create a better society. A leader of one of Colorado’s dispensaries recently told me: “As a cannabis business owner, to comply in one area, you have to break a rule in another area. These are the pains of being first. We are paying for it so that others behind us don’t have to experience this.”

Hollie Cooper cleans a set of grow lights after harvesting cannabis plants at Northern Lights' grow facility in Denver, Colorado. (Seth McConnell, The Denver Post)
Hollie Cooper cleans a set of grow lights after harvesting cannabis plants at Northern Lights’ grow facility in Denver, Colorado. (Seth McConnell, The Denver Post)

I know you didn’t get to where you are without taking some risks too. So will you join us in taking the risk required to end the war on drugs? Will you allow the voices of our businesses and customers to be heard? Will you help us lead?

I have a few ideas for your Facebook and Instagram teams:

• Stop shutting down accounts of businesses that are operating legally and individuals sharing their experiences in the states where they can consume cannabis legally. When your team does decide to shut an account down, provide some meaningful explanation for why the account was flagged.

• Adapt the terms of service to allow individuals and businesses to post cannabis content that is considered legal in the state(s) where they operate. Provide guardrails that allow businesses to geo-target and age-restrict their content to match the laws in the state(s) where they operate.

• Use geo-targeting and age restriction technology to give cannabis companies access to the same compliant advertising that alcohol companies use today. It is worth noting that as a U.S.-based business, Facebook allows companies to advertise alcohol to individuals under the age of 21, as long as those ads comply with the legal drinking age of the country being geo-targeted.

If you’d like to discuss this further, you can always find me by messaging my Facebook page. Your algorithm currently categorizes my company as “very responsive” with a 100 percent response rate in under 24 minutes.

Lauren Gibbs is founder and president of Rise Above Social Strategies, whose clients have included leading cannabis companies nationwide. Lauren first appeared on The Cannabist Show in January. Find Rise Above Social Strategies on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.