Weed’s free speech wars

By Alex Halperin
Nov 21, 2022

710 Labs has cred to spare.

In Florida and California, it maintains The List, a direct sales service for drops of its choicest concentrates. Last I saw it required a minimum pretax order of $300 and they sell out within 24 hours. Hash heads who miss too many sales, get dropped themselves.

Recently, 710 promoted a Zoom “Live Sesh” on how to find high quality flower. It featured High Times’ VP content Jon Cappetta, Trichome Institute founder Max Montrose and comedian Melissa Ong. But instead of high-spirited geekery, Ong started with a reference to her “emotional support ketamine” and white slaves.

With Cappetta and Montrose looking confused, Ong mused about writing a song about “when a white person eats me out and I nut in their face.“ It’d be called “Reparations Bitch!” The video goes on for 30 more minutes.

“Embarrassing for 710” captures the tone on one cannabis Reddit thread. Several commenters called it racist. 710 took down the video. (It can be seen here.)

“We do not agree with or condone her comments and her behavior on the sesh. If we had to do it over, we would have ended it,” Nick Fotis, 710’s CMO wrote to WeedWeek. The next one “will be purely informational.” Fotis noted that it wasn’t a paid appearance for Ong.

What did 710 expect? @melissaong69420 didn’t top 4M TikTok followers by being safe for work. One can imagine a similar incident with some edgier brands in the mainstream economy. But as with anything weed, there’s another layer to it. Cannabis is both an outlaw industry and one deeply invested in its own normalization. So what are and aren’t people in the cannabiz allowed to say? And what does that mean for brand marketing strategies?

Two more recent incidents show just how tricky these questions can be.

An overtly troll-ish gesture

Last week at MJBiz Con, photos of white guys wearing “Buy weed from rich white men,” T-shirts went viral. 

The shirt is even more provocative because it steals its motif from Buy Weed From Woman, a Black-woman owned design company in New Jersey. Most, but not all, commenters on social expressed their disgust, while others suggested the shirt intended to call attention to racism, or that opposing its message was racist.

In eight years of covering cannabis, I can’t remember such an overtly troll-ish gesture. My guess is it owes something to the growing reality that not everyone in weed is going to make it. And not everyone supports equity, especially when their company is at stake.

I don’t know who was wearing the shirt, but the quote is attributed to RR Stanley, a meme-er who according to this article may or may not exist. I reached out to a possibly affiliated brand and did not hear back.

The shirt channels roughly the same political forces that have catalyzed populist movements around the world. In other words, messages like this can be a very effective marketing strategy. We’re going to see more of them.

“If you see things like this, report it,”

Also this month, Cookies boss Berner re-released his 420-friendly app Social Club 🙂.

When it had first come out in 2019, Berner described Social Club as a marketing channel for Cookies, an alternative to Instagram which routinely blocks weed accounts. The app touted itself as “censorship free,” and within months, it was overrun with vile memes and had to be put on hiatus. (Spokespeople for Cookies didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

The next time, Berner said, Social Club would have to be a business, one he has suggested would accept advertising from other brands. That will require a much more rigorously patrolled app. Yesterday, days after re-launch, Berner said in a post that several accounts had been removed for selling fentanyl and pills.

“That’s not acceptable on this app,” Berner said. “If you see things like this, report it,” He said the app would likely build a moderation team.

  • Social club is also on the lookout for “nudity and violence.”

Social Club, of course, has the right to ban whatever it wants from its app. And as Berner has said, it’s stupid to do anything illegal on a smartphone. But many many in the cannabis community will gravitate to an edgier message. My Instagram feed is full of sexy and vulgar weed memes that some weed brands wouldn’t want to appear next to. One of a dog’s (or pig’s) butt shaded to look like Christ on the cross comes to mind.

Would that be allowed on Social Club? The app’s success might depend on the answer.