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Facebook has shut down pages set up by several businesses licensed to legally sell marijuana in Alaska, severing what some shop owners consider a critical link to their customers.
The social media giant said its standards describe what users can post, and content promoting marijuana sales isn't allowed. The issue has popped up over the last few years in states that have legalized recreational and medical pot, often coming in waves, industry officials said.
Cary Carrigan, executive director of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association, said the industry has been forced to fight the same battles repeatedly as marijuana gains broader acceptance nationally.
The drug is legal for recreational use in eight states, but it remains illegal on the federal level. It wasn't clear why the crackdown in Alaska happened within the past couple weeks or what specifically prompted it.
But it comes as social media sites grapple with setting boundaries for what users can post. Twitter has announced efforts to address abusive behavior, while Facebook has said it would do more to help keep violent material and hate speech off the platform.
Jana Weltzin, an Anchorage-based attorney who works with the cannabis industry, said pulling Facebook pages of marijuana businesses "has an incredibly negative, chilling effect on the commercial speech of these companies."
TV and radio stations often do not allow marijuana advertising, so social media is a way for businesses to communicate directly with their consumers, she said. In Alaska, rules for pot advertising are unclear and inconsistent, Weltzin said.
Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said her organization has sought clear guidelines from Facebook without much success.
She suggests affected businesses appeal their account suspensions or deletions to Facebook and press for more information. In the past, that has yielded mixed results, she said.
"In some cases, people never hear back. In other cases, they get their accounts back, fully restored," West said.
For Leah Levinton's pot business, Enlighten Alaska, there was no advance warning that the Facebook page would be taken down.
She wasn't sure how much it has affected the Anchorage business but said the shop has fielded calls from people who saw the page was down and wanted to know if the shop was still open.
"It's just frustrating," she said, noting that the industry already faces a number of restrictions. "We're already so limited that when something else that is almost like a privilege is taken away, it's just like, what do you do?"
She does not want to contact Facebook for fear that her page — with its followers and content — will be deleted. She worries, too, that it's only a matter of time before its Instagram account is shut down. Facebook owns the photo-sharing site.
James Barrett, co-owner of Rainforest Farms in Juneau, said his business pre-emptively took down its Facebook page when it saw what was happening. It has about 2,000 followers and doesn't want to lose them.
He said the business wants to see if Facebook provides more clarity when it comes to pot-related posts.
Rainforest Farms doesn't post prices, gears its advertising to those older than 21, and often uses the site to let people know when they're open, he said.
It has other ways to reach consumers, including a website, an email distribution list and a hotline.
"But a lot of people use Facebook," he said. "It's a tool in their pocket. They want to see what's going on, they're in an area. They rely on Facebook for that kind of stuff."
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