Facebook’s Cryptic Restrictions on Posts about Marijuana Penalize Journalists


The medical marijuana industry has a new wonder drug, and it wants you to know about it. CBD oil — also known as hemp oil — is a derivative of cannabis plants that many, including desperate parents, have seen relieve symptoms of childhood epilepsy and other severe conditions. For children with seizure and spasm disorders, CBD oil could change their life. And unlike THC, the better known of pot’s ingredients, CBD delivers no high.

The problem is, as my New Republic colleague Elizabeth Bruenig writes in this month’s issue, CBD oil is only legal right now in 17 states, and even in those states there are no coherent regulations and safety protocols for the production, distribution, and dosages. CBD sellers are hawking their product to parents and interested investors without any nationwide, standardized system of safety regulations in place. Under federal law, after all, marijuana is still illegal. As Liz writes in her piece,

The state of the CBD industry harks back to the age of elixirs and potions hawked from covered wagons to the awed denizens of pioneer towns. … In the absence of regulation and research, the CBD industry trafficks in hard-sell marketing and a gray haze of half-truths, all the while profiting off the hopes of the desperate.

As an associate editor at the New Republic, I manage our social media presence. When Liz’s article went live, as I do with all of our feature articles, I posted it to the New Republic Facebook page and then, as we sometimes do, I went onto the Facebook Ad Manager to create a paid campaign that would push the article out to a wider audience.

About an hour later, I got a message from Facebook: my ad had been denied. It didn’t meet their Advertising Policies, the notice said:

I looked at their ad guidelines, and the closest rule that applies is the following one (that is, if we interpret “promote” to mean “make others aware of via journalism):

Ads must not constitute, facilitate, or promote illegal products, services or activities.

I was puzzled by this reasoning as the New Republic is a journalism organization investigating an issue of wide public interest and not a purveyor of medical marijuana. So I wrote Facebook back, asking for a review of their ruling. I hoped that they’d see the irony and allow our ad through.

A day later, I got this response:

We’re not alone in this. The Ganjier, an organization for professionals interested in marijuana, engaged in a lengthy back-and-forth with Facebook representatives after their post boosts began to get blocked in December 2014. Eventually, Facebook reversed its ruling, but provided no explanation of the initial disapproval or its reversal.

The complications of state-by-state legality are widespread. Many medical marijuana business struggle to secure loans from banks, regardless of their legal status. Commercial real estate landlords and business associations can refuse to rent space to dispensaries. And the fact that medical marijuana is legal in 23 states but not 27 others means that companies like Facebook can come up with rules that penalize news organizations with no financial stake in the business of marijuana.

Fully legalizing cannabis at the federal level would get the U.S. government involved in researching and regulating the uses of CBD oil and other marijuana-derived drugs. Added benefit? Facebook would have to base its ad guidelines off something more substantial than an ad rep’s opinion.

Update (Oct. 5): Three days after I published this article on Medium, I received another email from Facebook. This time they said they were reversing their decision, and are allowing our ad promoting Liz’s article to go through. As with The Ganjier, they provided no explanation of their decisions, leaving their policies on how information about medical marijuana can be promoted on Facebook just as hazy as before.