Weed Firms Are Using Instagram Influencers To Dodge Regulations
The murky world of social media influencers is providing an outlet for weed companies to advertise their products and services
Every industry has its influencers. There are beauty influencers, wellness influencers – and weed influencers.
Weed influencers use social media to post about anything weed-adjacent. Sometimes that’s discussing specific strains, recommending stores in their areas to get paraphernalia or products from, or reviewing equipment or edibles. They tend to be young women and mainly post on YouTube and Instagram.
“They appear to be getting products for free from various shops, and doing reviews and giveaways,” says James Lange, a researcher at San Diego State University who has been following drug use in online videos for several years. “But when you look at the style of videos and the types of people who are doing well, they fit into what you’d expect from just about any other similar content: young, attractive and upbeat.”
Some weed influencers post confessional videos, like talking about their breakup while smoking a joint, while others offer more straightforward reviews, such as comparing different pipes. Some advocate for more lenient laws and talk about incarceration rates. There are even recorded “potcasts”.
Much like in the influencer-friendly world of beauty, some in the scene are starting to offer their own subscription boxes, where you can get a box of cannabis-related products delivered to your door once or twice a month. The Hippie Butler, one of earliest producers of such services, offers boxes containing grinders, gifts and snacks for munchies. Others have Patreon accounts where fans can sponsor them directly.
One reason weed influencers are on the up is the difficulty of marketing cannabis even in places it has been legalised, including Canada and certain US states. (In the UK, cannabis remains illegal except for specific medical purposes.) In the US, cannabis agencies and companies can’t advertise on TV in states where more than 30 per cent of the population is likely to be under 21. In Canada, adult use products have to be sold in plain packaging, and can’t suggest the promise of a glamorous or dangerous lifestyle. Social media platforms also have their own restrictions on advertising.
“Traditional media and paid advertising are completely out of the picture – no Facebook, no Instagram, no Google ads,” says Jared Mirsky, who runs marketing for Wick and Mortar, a cannabis branding agency. “The laws are continually changing. So there is no one distinct set of challenges which we face, but dozens – so cannabis is one of the most difficult legal products in the world to market.”
Not being able to advertise directly means cannabis companies need to be more creative. “We have to think outside the box, and come up with campaigns that won’t get flagged or negative attention – so staying really smart and educational,” says Olivia Mannix from the advertising agency Cannabrand. “We use influencers with tens of thousands of followers to those with millions of followers, so the brand would pay to have their product in an Instagram post or story, to make it very organic. People don’t like to be advertised to, so when they’re seeing something that an influencer is using, they’re going to want to have that.”
Jonathan, a Canadian influencer who posts on Instagram under @weedstagram416, says that he used to post just about the products he loved but that brands then started coming to him. “As I grew my page towards medical home growing and education, it opened many new doors for brands to come along with me,” he says. “They felt comfortable with knowing exactly what I would deliver, content-wise.”
But it’s not like influencers get a free pass. After the federal cannabis act passed in Canada in October, which came with specific restrictions on advertising, Jonathan says he stopped taking payment, just to be on the safe side. Additionally, Facebook and Instagram don’t allow cannabis products to be featured in paid sponsored posts, and posting content which appears to promote drug use is still against the sites’ terms of service, even for posts that aren’t advertisements.
That doesn’t mean it never happens, however, and some complain that these regulations are unevenly enforced. Bess Byers, who posts at @imcannabess on Instagram, also works in the cannabis industry as a photographer and consultant. She had her account with 90,000 followers initially deactivated on August 1, 2018. A timeline on her blog details the numerous reactivations and deletions since, which now number eight. “Instagram has been on this weird kind of purge which they’ve always had, but it’s picked up steam in the last few months,” she says.
Instagram says that its community operations team reviews millions of reports a week, and that if a mistake is made, they work quickly to rectify the error. The company also says that buying or selling illegal or prescription drugs on Instagram is prohibited, and that it encourages anyone who comes across content like this to report it.
Lange says that some of the earliest content came from YouTubers in US states that had legalised medical cannabis. Many of those users took care to ensure that they were using medical terms to avoid the perception that they were selling cannabis, although they may have been doing so indirectly. “As legalisation of adult non-medical use started to spread, the language around medical use dropped for some,” says Lange. “But it’s also clear that some of the channels have been quashed by YouTube.”
On YouTube, weed YouTubers have said they would wake up to find that their friends’ accounts, and eventually their own, deleted overnight, often having videos from two or three years ago flagged up as violating the site’s terms of service. As a result, some YouTubers got together to form The Weed Tube, a video streaming platform that has videos of people using cannabis and doing popular challenges with a cannabis twist.
Other influencers have come up with ways to try to avoid falling foul of restrictions, such as putting “adult only” disclaimers on their profile.
In response, YouTube said, “We prohibit content offering the sale of certain highly regulated substances, like marijuana. When we’re made aware of this type of content, we remove it.”
For marketing agencies and companies selling cannabis products, influencers have been a boon – a creative way to get around regulations, with the added impression of authenticity. Typically, the more people that are looking at your product, or your posts, the better. But as public and legal attitudes to cannabis have shifted, the subcultures immersed in it are being subject to more scrutiny than before.
For some, that could cause a huge dent – from revenue, to followers, to brand recognition. But cannabis influencers have taken on educational roles too, giving people information about how to avoid sketchy companies, or how to best ease into trying different products or strains. That information is often difficult to find elsewhere – government guidance barely scratches the surface of what the regular consumer wants to know. If the purges of cannabis influencers continue for much longer, that could be bad news for the rest of us.