The Hemp Community Podcast

Cannabis and Social Media

February 09, 2022 The Hemp Community Season 2 Episode 3
The Hemp Community Podcast
Cannabis and Social Media
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of The Hemp Community Podcast we discuss the intersection between cannabis and the world of social media.

Content creators and brands beware; can you trust the algorithm?

Under prohibition, social media platforms a required to censor content that relates to cannabis, even if it is legal products derived from hemp varieties. 

The law has got us all tangled up and The Hemp Community is here to shine a light.

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Let’s moan about social media…

Hi there and welcome to the hemp community podcast, my name is Dan and in this week’s episode we are going to be discussing cannabis and social media.

I’d like to start with the obligatory reminder and shameless plug for the hemp community; we are a social enterprise in Edinburgh Scotland, and our not-for-profit business works with cannabis products. We sell a range of CBD oils, pastes, capsules, vapes, edibles and more, but our most important work is supporting the people who make up our community.

Part of the reason I set up the hemp community in 2017 was in response to personal experience; I started using CBD for my mental health and such was the effect that I was compelled to pursue a career selling the stuff. During the process of starting the business, it occurred to me that not everyone would share the same easy process with the cannabinoid compounds on offer. Afterall, I had used cannabis personally for many years, and had spent almost as many years reading and learning about cannabis science. I came to understand that I was uniquely advantaged through a combination of anecdote and academia. I decided that one of the main functions of my business should be to support individuals who are new to CBD, which is almost everyone I meet in the shop. This is part of the reason The Hemp Community was set up as a social enterprise; our mission is to educate, inform, advise and support.

I’d also like to point out that most people who are new to The Hemp Community are also new to CBD, even those who have a previous relationship with cannabis. Most of the cannabis provided by the black market has negligible CBD content; breeders select genes that amplify THC production in the plant at the expense of balance. Similarly, growers typically optimise their facilities to maximise the profitable yield of the crop. To put it succinctly; your weed dealer doesn’t have enough CBD on him to count as a dose, so if you’ve never deliberately set out to consume CBD, you can safely assume that you’ve never had any. There are exceptions to this rule of course; frequently at the hemp community we speak with people who are used to using cannabis products such as hashish which has a very different cannabinoid profile to the dried and cured flowers of the plant. Some of our customers come from a place with legal cannabis and so they are used to having more choices, but if you have only ever used weed from illicit sources, there is a near certain chance that you haven’t had CBD. 

While CBD and THC are both cannabinoids and share some similarities, they are not the same. In previous episodes I’ve gone into more detail but to summarise I like to think about CBD and THC as being contrasting but complimentary; THC is a very noticeable acute dose, whereas CBD is a more subtle compound working best through accumulation. My favourite analogy is to think of THC as the rockstar, and CBD is the roadie. All eyes are on the lead singer when he’s on stage, but he doesn’t pack up the kit at the end of the show. Look backstage and there are more roadies than rockstars, but the quality of production relies on everyone working together. 

We love to share our insights into CBD and THC with anyone willing to listen, and there are plenty of people out there interested! Here are a few statistics that come to mind, figures that I found when planning the hemp community. Our first figure is 90%, and this represents the number of people who use paracetamol/ibuprofen/aspirin at least once a month. 9 out of every 10 people you meet is using over the counter anti-inflammatory drugs to treat any number of conditions ranging from minor aches and pains, to colds and flus, and even more severe conditions where pain management becomes a more pressing need. The second statistic I’d like to share is 50%, and this is the number of people who are using a food supplement in any given month. Food supplement is a broad category and it includes vitamins, minerals, herbal extracts and of course lots of CBD is classified as a food supplement. So as well as 90% of the adult population who are regularly consuming non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, there is a large and overlapping number of people who are using supplements in their diet. Again, there can be many reasons why people use a herbal supplement or vitamin pill; in Scotland it is recommend that we all take vitamin D because we don’t get enough sunlight. St.John’s wort is used for depression, turmeric is recommended for digestive comfort and don’t even get me started on the number of supplements that offer control of weight and appetite. These two statistics; 90% and 50% tell me that there are a lot of people in our society who are unwell, or at the very least are trying to improve their health. Why else would someone buy a remedy, if not to treat a disease? Afterall, healthy people don’t seek medicine.

This is where cannabis comes in. By merit of its ability to produce a stunning variety of cannabinoid compounds, the cannabis plant offers something unique; the tools that your body can use to look after itself. This is in my opinion the key to understanding how cannabis works; try to think about what your body does with CBD and THC, not just what they do to you. That shift in perspective can make all the difference, especially when you are new to cannabis or learning about CBD in detail for the first time. Your body’s endocannabinoid system puts CBD and THC to work; without the endocannabinoid system CBD and THC would have no value, either as medicine or as a mild recreational intoxicant.

This is the basis of the hemp community; we combine our love of the pant with our love of humanity, and try to raise awareness of the potential benefits from hemp and cannabis for individuals, communities and the environment. If you had a message you wanted to share how would you go about it? 

The first and obvious answer is you tell your friends and family, but unfortunately there’s only so much proselytizing an individual can do before those around them start to tune out, especially when there is something taboo like cannabis as the subject. I’m sure that many people got sick of hearing me talk about CBD at my previous job, and I’m grateful for those of you who maintained your support when I went full-time in 2018.

One of the most important tools that businesses and brands have is social media; a range of mostly free services that allows businesses to reach out to new customers digitally. A place to share pictures and reviews of products, a way of communicating changes, live-stream and communicate with customers directly, all from the comfort of a smartphone. If you’re interested in following the hemp community we have accounts on facebook, twitter, Instagram tik-tok and reddit, all with the user name @hempcommunity. As much as we appreciate the follows, all is not as it seems in the glamorous world of online CBD marketing.

First let’s establish that CBD products are legal and always have been. Neither the 2016 Psychoactive substances act, nor the preceding Misuse of Substances Act banned CBD, basically because it doesn’t get you stoned. THC makes people feel a bit giddy and the law is very clear about plants that induce happiness, but CBD has the status of a food supplement; something that doesn’t get you high but that you can use to support and maintain your health. The reason I’m making this point about CBD being legal is because your favourite social media site doesn’t know the difference, or rather doesn’t care to make exceptions for legal cannabis products; almost every social media platform has a “no drugs” policy, and any product that sports the infamous 5 fingered leaf, or features CBD or hemp in the name is likely to get discriminated against by the algorithm. Now of course, when I say “algorithm” I’m talking in very broad terms, but it is with broad strokes that all hemp and cannabis products are tarred with the same brush.

Facebookn, Instagram, and no doubt the much lauded if mildly nauseating Metaverse, host billions of accounts around the world, including many accounts that are used for illegal activities such as dealing drugs and subverting democratic processes. There are many groups on these platforms where cannabis is bought and sold as openly as old furniture in facebook’s marketplace. Some groups count their members in thousands. Occasionally these groups are shuttered by facebook moderators, but many keep a low profile and are able to continue uninterrupted. 

With regards to government regulation, cannabis remains in an unusual position, simultaneously regulated by several bodies, none of whom seem to have it quite right. In order to remain legal, CBD brands must comply with stringent criteria on how the products are marketed. You will notice that The Hemp Community’s marketing output almost never mentions real world cases or user feedback that supports our cause; to include this information would put us at odds with MHRA regulations over the marketing of medicines. This is why many CBD brands content is so formulaic; the words “support and maintain” on every site, accompanied lots of vague phrases about “feeling” and “effect”. As a social enterprise we were able to use these limitations as a framework to build on; instead of waxing lyrical about products and potential outcomes, we focus on the physiological function and maintenance of the endocannabinoid system. Not that this has an effect on our social media’s performance, but its worth remembering that every brand, business and cannabis community group on social media is subject the weird and counter-productive regulations imposed by tech companies in response to government drug policy.

The Hemp Community also have our own facebook group with about 500 members, which you are free to join if you wish, but you may be wondering why you haven’t seen it so far? Surely as someone interested in CBD and hemp, facebook’s algorithm should be showing you products, services and communities that share your interest? In fact its quite the opposite; social media platforms routinely hides cannabis business, including our own, from the very people who might benefit from our products. Its extremely rare to see an advertisement for CBD on social media, because if facebook’s algorithm gets even so much of a whiff of weed, it blocks the ad citing violations reasonable use guidelines and drug policies. 

As such many CBD businesses put out posts on social media, safe in the knowledge that almost no-one will see them. The effect on entrepreneurs is demoralising; a constant up-hill battle, once described to me as a war of attrition. Every once in a while a post breaks through; perhaps an interesting news article or amusing meme will garner a dozen likes, but on a platform hosting billions of accounts it’s merely a drop in the ocean. Most of the participation we get on social media comes from a select few users, and we are tremendously grateful for every like comment and share. If you have friends who run a small business, do them a favour and comment at least 5 words on their posts; it can work miracles for their page’s reach.

For the most part, social media’s canna-phobia is a weight around the neck of a nascent industry. Small businesses struggle to build a following, while bigger players can churn out airbrushed product shots on their profiles, and enlist an army of comment bots to boost their credibility. Neither the big business nor the small can use advertising features, but in this day and age it would be mad to forego the use of social media.

Platforms like Instagram skew toward a younger demographic, and it’s no secret that Instagram is full of accounts selling drugs, including cannabis. If you were to set up a new account right now and started searching for weed dealers, I’m confident you could find one within a few minutes who will be able to deliver straight to your door at no extra cost. Cash only, and no id required the black market thrives on the anonymity afforded to social media users. Every account that gets shut down can be replaced, and of course there are an incalculable number of people on these sites who are there to scam people out of money. Please don’t buy your weed off Instagram, try and find a cannabis social club near you and avoid the gangs.

I find it an interesting irony that most of these platforms are American; the country that forced cannabis prohibition on the world and is simultaneously the heart and soul of the cannabis reform movement, America is also the home of many of the social media sites that we use. Silicon valley and the tech sector are frequently associated with psychedelic substance use including cannabis, LSD and ketamine. Anecdotal evidence informs us that many programmers use cannabis as a way of focusing on the unusual cognitive demands associated with their line of work, and some micro dose with powerful hallucinogens to attain creative insights. Yet another layer of irony can be found when we make the realisation that some of the people who built these websites were cannabis users! The federal prohibition of cannabis means that businesses, including social media groups, have to be careful about what they allow on their platforms; goodness know they might even accidentally share the truth among the noise.

Without top-down legalisation and the liberation of the plant and its people, social media will never tolerate cannabis products or even hemp brands. I’m not even sure if cannabis brands should be allowed to advertise on social media; there’s a debate to be had about how much access high-risk industries like alcohol, tobacco and gambling should have to advertising and social media, and part of that debate also includes discussion on cannabis. Cannabis is a medicine, but it’s a weird medicine that doesn’t neatly fit in the cabinet. It’s a food supplement but its not chamomile. Cannabis is a social drug, but nothing like alcohol. You can smoke cannabis, but its not tobacco. You can eat it, but its more than just a foodstuff. Cannabis is something that requires a little patience to understand, but thankfully there is a tremendous effort underway to show the world a positive vision of cannabis as something that can enhance our health and augment our appreciation of life. 

As with the prohibition of any substance, cannabis survives with a variety of nicknames, all of which have been fed into social media algorithms. Even altruistic brands like The Hemp Community are unable to side-step the automated implementation of social media’s content policies. I suppose it doesn’t help that we have the word “hemp” in our name, and we only sell CBD…heck even if we were to shorten our name to an acronym we’d still be in trouble, The Hemp Community…THC…get it?

I’ve always been of the opinion that honesty is the best policy. When I set up this business I wanted it to be very clear what we were about, but that choice to wear the hemp badge with pride has made us an unwitting target for strict censorship of our advertising and content, and its not just us.

Take a look around social media and you will find weed influencers all over, some more subtle than others. Unfortunately there is a worrying trend emerging since the pandemic of established content creators throwing in the towel as it were. These are people who made a living creating cannabis-centric and broadly harmless content; reviews, interviews, unboxing and other assorted motifs. Due to the way social media platforms regulate their content, creators find themselves working harder and harder to reach a dwindling number of followers; the algorithm exerts a constant downward pressure, in part to encourage brands to invest in advertising, which we know cannabis brands will be blocked from doing.

At the hemp community, we meet a lot of customers through social media, but we try not to rely on it. For the most part it is enough for us to present, but we don’t waste energy trying to swim against the tide. Occasionally there are trends on social media that we can use to our advantage; for example in the month of April the mainstream media likes to remind us that cannabis exists as the world gears up for 420, i.e. the twentieth of April, celebrated by millions of people as a day to celebrate cannabis use. In the month leading up top 420, cannabis brands make big announcements, journalists run stories on patients, and the whole world gets a little whiff of legal cannabis. April is one of the busiest times of the year for the cannabis industry, almost like a second Christmas!

 One final topic that we haven’t really discussed so far today except in passing, is the idea of misinformation or “fake news” on social media. I have encountered many people at the hemp community who discovered CBD through dubious means; for example when British TV personality Mary Berry was featured in a fake ad for an unscrupulous CBD brand. Other celebrities have been used in similar scams, and of course there are all sorts of sales funnels and click-bait websites vying for your attention. There are also many sites that offer erroneous information, even if they’re not aware of it. This is of course one of the risks of a decentralised information exchange such as the internet; everyone can express their ideas and opinions, even if they’re not true.

Cannabis users make up about 10% of the population in this country, and while there is majority support for the legalisation of cannabis in the UK, it is unlikely that the cannabis movement is going to throw its weight into fighting the digital giants when there are far more pressing issues at hand. Medical cannabis continues to crawl towards mainstream acceptance, and before we can start to make a case for the legalisation of so-called recreational or adult-use cannabis we must first prioritise the vulnerable patients who are missing out on a medicine that could change or save their lives. Most people working in the cannabis industry have got used to the limitations imposed by the technocrats in charge of compliance at the social media sites, but no doubt it is only a matter of time before the legislative barriers comes down and cannabis businesses are welcomed into the fold.

Until then, the hemp community will continue to do our best; we’re here holding out a beacon for anyone interested in using cannabis for their health, even if you have to dig a little deeper through the socials to find us, we’ll be here.