Why are Instagram and Facebook shutting down these Massachusetts marijuana dispensaries’ accounts?

"They've taken away our communication."

People line up outside Cultivate at the Leicester dispensary's opening last week.

For months after it opened for medical marijuana sales, Cultivate used Instagram to provide updates to patients and show off new products, from new strains of flower to its cannabis-infused pumpkin spice dust.

But last week, with interest at its peak, the Leicester dispensary had its account wiped clean from the internet.

Francy Wade, a spokeswoman for Cultivate, told Boston.com that Instagram shuttered their page without notice last Tuesday, Nov. 20, the first day they opened for recreational sales.

“They’ve taken away our communication,” Robert Lally, the company’s chief operating officer, said during a public meeting in Leicester earlier this week.

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Cultivate wasn’t the only one silenced.

As the Worcester Business Journal reported Wednesday, at least six Massachusetts marijuana dispensaries — including the first two shops licensed to sell the drug for recreational use, Cultivate and New England Access Treatment in Northampton — have had their accounts disabled for violating the social media platform’s terms of use.

Instagram’s community guidelines prohibit users from offering “illegal or prescription drugs (even if it’s legal in your region)” — as well as sexual services and firearms — on the platform.

While legal for adults over 21 years old in Massachusetts and nine other states, marijuana is still prohibited federally in the United States and most other countries. As a result, Instagram spokeswoman Stephanie Noon says the company “does not allow content that promotes the sale of marijuana regardless of state or country.”

“Our policy prohibits any marijuana seller, including dispensaries, from promoting their business by providing contact information like phone numbers or street addresses,” Noon told Boston.com. “Because of the borderless nature of our respective communities, we try to enforce our policies as consistently as possible.”

Whether or not an account is removed depends on the severity and number of the violations, according to Noon, who confirmed that the six companies mentioned in the Worcester Business Journal story had their accounts removed for violating their “regulated goods” policy.

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“We may warn someone the first time they break our Community Guidelines,” she said. “If they continue, we may remove the account altogether.”

Instagram does allow advocacy and discussion around marijuana. And pot companies can have a presence on the platform — as long as they follow the rules.

“Dispensaries can promote the use and federal legalization of marijuana provided that they do not also promote its sale or provide contact information to their store,” Noon said.

Products on display at the Cultivate dispensary on the first day of legal recreational marijuana sales last week. —Steven Senne / AP

Facebook, which owns Instagram, has a similar ban and its own well-documented history of booting the accounts of state-legal cannabis companies.

In its own regulated goods policy, the social media giant specifically outlaws individuals and retailers from using the platform with the intent to sell marijuana. The prohibition similarly includes “explicitly mentioning the product is for sale,” listing its price, or including the contact information for the seller.

NETA, which declined to comment Thursday, also recently had their Facebook account shuttered for reaching a certain threshold of violations, according to a Facebook spokesperson.

Cultivate and a number of other local medical marijuana dispensaries with plans to enter the recreational-use market continue to have Facebook pages. However, some — though certainly not all — have become dormant in recent months. The Leicester store, which used to regularly post photos and promote their products on Facebook, hasn’t published anything on their page since Oct. 13.

If it seems as though Facebook is applying its policy unevenly, that’s because the company only just recently began ramping up its detection and enforcement efforts on the drug front, according to their spokesperson.

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Generally, Facebook removes objectionable content after it is either reported by users or detected beforehand by artificial intelligence. Earlier this month, the company announced that they had begun expanding that “proactive” technology to detect and take down more content that specifically violates their drug policy.

“Our technology is able to detect content that includes images of drugs and depicts the intent to sell with information such as price, phone numbers or usernames for other social media accounts,” Kevin Martin, Facebook’s vice president of U.S. public policy, wrote in a Nov. 13 blog post.

Martin’s post focused on the the opioid epidemic and didn’t even mention marijuana, but that doesn’t mean their increased efforts don’t apply to both. Going forward, Facebook expects to be better able to detect and take down marijuana content — from dispensaries or otherwise — that violates their regulated goods policy, according to their spokesperson. The rollout is also occurring on Instagram.

Meanwhile, dispensary officials are eager to get their accounts back up and running.

“We are working with Instagram to try and reactivate our account,” Wade said Thursday.

Not only are they unable to market their products on two of the world’s biggest social media platforms, Facebook and Instagram’s policies have also made it difficult to address logistical issues. During the public meeting Monday about the local traffic issues caused by Cultivate’s opening in Leicester, Lally said the loss of their accounts hampered their ability to communicate with customers.

“Our Instagram got shut down,” he lamented. “Our Facebook — we don’t have Facebook.”

NETA, which says it had its original Instagram account disabled at 3,400 followers, appears to have gone ahead and launched a new account last week. After being reached for this article, the company made the account private Thursday afternoon.

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