Local companies grapple with Facebook's restrictions on hemp, CBD ads

David Floyd • May 25, 2019 at 6:31 PM

Soon after making his start in the hemp industry with the Healing Vibes Hemp Company, Will Casey tried to boost several posts over his company’s Facebook page.

Facebook, apparently, didn't like that.

"They actually ended up shutting our page down," said Casey, the founder of both Healing Vibes Hemp Company and Mountain Roots Hemp Dispensary & Cafe, a shop in downtown Johnson City.

"So basically we just appealed and appealed and appealed and appealed and appealed and appealed, and they finally reopened our account."

Casey estimated his company must’ve appealed the decision more than a dozen times, and he considered starting a petition on Change.org. When Facebook reactivated the page, he said the company told them they couldn’t boost posts.

“It’s really not worth losing our Facebook and going through that appeals process again,” Casey said.

Boosting posts over Facebook allows businesses to advertise to people who don't follow a company's page but could be interested in their products.

Facebook's advertising policies prohibit ads from promoting the sale or use of illegal, prescription or recreational drugs, Facebook spokesperson Veronica Twombly explained to the Johnson City Press in March. Facebook allows ads for non-ingestible hemp products without cannabidiol, a substance derived from cannabis also called CBD, but ads for any products containing ingestible hemp or CBD are prohibited.

“We continue to review our policies over time so we can better understand different perspectives and the impact of our policies on different communities globally,” Twombly said in March.

Facebook did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment for this article.

Some advocates believe Facebook’s policy puts a severe limitation on the industry. In a press release, the Hemp Industries Association, a non-profit advocating for looser restrictions on the marketing of hemp products, said Facebook, which has more than 2 billion monthly users, acts as “a massive market” for hemp companies.

“For new entrepreneurs looking to break into the growing hemp industry, being denied access to the social media platform’s advertising capabilities represents a massive roadblock,” the organization said in the release.

According to a December 2018 article by the Brookings Institution, the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill opened the door for the broader cultivation and sale of hemp and products derived from hemp. Under this law, legal hemp cannot contain more than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.

The regulatory environment for CBD is a bit more complicated. According to a March 2019 article by Time, CBD is legal as long as it comes from a hemp plant that meets the Farm Bill’s THC requirements and not another cannabis plant.

The Hemp Industries Association believes Facebook’s ad policy regarding hemp is now inconsistent with how the plant is treated under U.S. law.

Even with this policy in place, local businesses are finding ways to market their hemp and legal CBD-infused products by simply avoiding the boost option on Facebook or relying on other marketing tools. For some, however, it does continue to be a headache.

Dos Gatos Coffee Bar in downtown Johnson City gives customers the option of putting a zero-THC, hemp-based CBD oil in their lattes. Owner Dick Nelson said the company advertised that option over their Facebook page earlier this year and tried to boost the post over the platform.

Facebook denied the boost, but Nelson left the post up. “I never paid advertising to promote the CBD, and then just out of the blue I got the message saying that they were canceling my ad account,” Nelson said, affecting both Dos Gatos and Nelson Fine Art and Framing, a custom framing studio and gallery Nelson owns in Johnson City.

Nelson eventually took the post down, but months after first receiving the notification from Facebook, he said his ad account is still deactivated. “There’s nothing on my Facebook page that says anything about CBD,” he said. 

He contacts Facebook two or three times a week and said he hasn’t yet received an adequate response or explanation from the company. “All I can do is assume that it’s about CBD,” he said.

The Dos Gatos and Nelson Fine Art Facebook pages are still active, but Nelson can’t boost posts so that they appear in front of people who don’t follow them.

Dustie Ludwig, who works for East Tennessee Hemp Company, which has locations in Jonesborough and Johnson City, said the company is able to avoid pitfalls on Facebook because they don’t boost posts on the platform.

The company’s Facebook page is actually one of its most effective marketing tools, she said. “Every day we’re getting somebody coming in because they’ve seen a post on Facebook,” she said.

Facebook marketing, however, is secondary to the number of people the store pulls in through simple word-of-mouth advertising. “We have a lot of people pushing people toward us, actually, saying, ‘Hey this is where I go. This is the go-to place,’” she said.

It’s a phenomenon that Casey also sees at Mountain Roots, which has been open for about a month. Social media helps, but word-of-mouth continues to be more effective, he said. “Somebody comes in, they purchase a product, they have a rave review, they typically come back pretty fast and I’d say half of the time they bring somebody in with them,” he said.

Casey said policies like Facebook’s reinforce negative stigmas surrounding cannabis. “Hemp is of course cannabis, and it’s a natural alternative to a lot of medications that people are on right now,” he said. “There’s just a super-stigma surrounding it.”

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