Inside Facebook's campaign against hemp advertising

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Over the past few months, social media and search engine behemoths Facebook and Google have gone to great lengths to ban and censor CBD and hemp-related advertisements on their platforms — despite that the 2018 Farm Bill legalized the cultivation of hemp-derived CBD, writes Sara Brittany Somerset.

Facebook recently confirmed the ban, disabled advertising and “boost-post” privileges for mainstream brands like Dr. Bronner’s hemp-based soap company, and yet, has still not announced clear rules or reasoning for this decision. 

According to a spokesperson for Dr. Bronner’s, Facebook disabled their advertising account (which is different from their actual Facebook page, which remains in tact) in early June for promoting hemp too often. The company does not know when it will be enabled again.  So even though hemp farming is now fully legal in the United States, hemp is still treated as an illegal drug under Facebook’s ad policy.

“Hemp does fall under our policy for related drug items.” 

Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap company is a mainstay not only in every hippie household, but also in mainstream supermarkets and bodegas across the country. Dr. Bronner's reached out to Facebook “numerous times to explain the difference between hemp and marijuana (although Dr. Bronner’s supports the legalization of both), and provided examples of hemp-related posts on Dr. Bronner’s Facebook page that had been approved in the past—leading to confusion about inconsistent policy enforcement.” 

On May 31, Facebook approved a Dr. Bronner's post about a Hemp History Week Event. On June 3, they then approved a promoted Dr. Bronner's post about Illinois legalizing adult use marijuana. And yet, exactly one week later on June 10, Facebook vetoed a post about the company's latest blog (title "Return of the Plant: the Promise of Hemp") and disabled their ad account.  

In 2017, however, Facebook informed Dr. Bronner’s that "advocacy or awareness ads are allowed," which the soap company believes aligns with its content. 

“Our posts about hemp and marijuana focus on changing legislation, celebrating legislative wins, pointing out systemic racism, et cetera. We never promote the sale of hemp or marijuana, or even make jokes about people smoking,” said Dr. Bronner’s social media manager, Stacey Oparnica.

Yet, Facebook told Oparnica that the post they rejected wouldn't be running because it didn't follow their Advertising Policies: "We don't allow ads that promote prescription or recreational drugs. Ads like these are sensitive in nature and are usually contrary to local laws, rules or regulations. Please keep in mind that advocacy or awareness ads are allowed. If you've read our policies and think that we made a mistake, you can request a second review by our team."

According to Oparnica, all the company’s appeals to Facebook were denied. “I had a third look at your ad account and we won’t be able to re-enable it," Facebook officials wrote to Dr. Bronners. "At this point, there’s no further action that you may take. We don’t support ad accounts that do not comply with our Advertising Policies or other standards. Please consider this decision final.” 

As such, Dr. Bronner’s is calling on Facebook to amend its advertising policy, and to “stop vilifying this climate-friendly, non-psychoactive plant.” The soap company took to Twitter to express their dismay: "Facebook disabled our advertising account for promoting #hemp,” Dr. Bronner’s tweeted. "Despite the fact that hemp farming is now fully legal in the United States, hemp is still considered illegal under Facebook's ad policy."

According to a Facebook spokesperson, the company’s “policy remains the same: We don’t allow people to promote CBD or ingestible hemp on Facebook. The update to non-ingestible hemp was made months ago.” That includes hemp milk, cereal, or other edible items. 

However, Facebook banned advertising for CBD or ingestible hemp, even though those products were not explicitly mentioned in the company’s advertising policies. Essentially, Facebook cryptically walked back its ban on hemp-derived CBD, but in reality, only for topicals.

Similar to Facebook, Google has taken a comparable approach, while simultaneously and covertly beta-testing a trial CBD ad program. Participating brands including Chilyo, which sells cannabidiol items, may pay to advertise — so long as the advertisement does not mention “CBD.” Yes, it's as confusing as it sounds: You can advertise for CBD without using the word "CBD."

The censorship of CBD and even hemp is not limited to social media, nor to CBD advertising. In March, 2019, a senior account manager at Anderson and Vines, who sells ads for TIME and the Wall Street Journal made overtures towards the female-led networking company Women Grow, via email. However, when Women Grow’s president Gia Morôn agreed to advertise, her ad was rejected. 

“Our campaigns are run through Google, and they won't allow certain content, and anything cannabis related just can't run,” the account rep told Ms. Morôn.

This week, Korto Momolu for Women Grow will be participating in the upcoming, New York Fashion Week (NYFW) show, on September 7 — and yet, while hemp will be part of the catwalk, Women Grow is not allowed to promote their NYFW event on the social media platform, like the other designers do.

“Facebook keeps shutting our advertising down; all Women Grow advertising. We can’t boost our posts, even though Facebook knows we are a women-led, minority-owned, ancillary business,” said Morôn. “I have gone back and forth with Facebook’s ad people. I explained we are helping women do business. We are not doing anything illegal.  We are doing targeted advertising, hitting the 33 legal states, and Facebook still won’t let us promote. We are responsible women: working mothers and entrepreneurs, and they are blocking our opportunities for growth.”

On August 15, an exasperated, Ms. Morôn asked Facebook for a meeting through its message portal; however, so far, they have not granted her the opportunity to present Women Grow for reconsideration. 

Attorney David Holland, executive director of the Empire State chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), takes umbrage with Facebook’s Orwellian policies including censorship of Women Grow and other companies.  

“The Facebook dilemma is extremely troubling on several levels: Not only is the exchange of legal goods and services being arbitrarily stifled, but the exchange of ideas in today’s virtual public square is being censored by machines where algorithms, not people, are determining what is appropriate speech,” Holland said. 

On Thursday May 18, 2019, Holland filed a suit, pro bono, against Facebook, on behalf of Cannaramic Media, LLC., — a media company that was formed to enhance the national debate in education about cannabis-related issues. Cannaramic’s first significant project was to assemble educational lectures by 25 leading authorities in the field and to air that for free over the internet as a first of- its- kind, online summit. 

Interestingly, Holland completed the lawsuit’s paperwork the same day as the White House announced it is monitoring censorship by Facebook, and asking people to submit their complaints directly to the administration using this form.

Currently, the case is temporarily withdrawn and dismissed without prejudice “due to an overwhelming response by similarly situated individuals, activists and businesses expressing their desires to join Cannaramic as a plaintiff, in order to further the national dialog with Facebook and Congress on cannabis-related issues,” according to a notice of voluntary withdrawal, filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. 

Holland intends to re-file the lawsuit as soon as he re-drafts the complaint to include additional plaintiffs. "A systematic campaign of thought control is being commenced by the very platform that was designed to bring people together to discuss these very ideas – all of which are perfectly legal," he said. "Thought crimes should remain the fodder of novels, not novel and omnipresent social media platforms.”

Civilized reached out to a representative for Facebook, repeatedly for comment but did not receive a reply.

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