Weedmaps – Breaking from its Political Allies?

Weedmaps, an online mapping service to help marijuana consumers find marijuana providers, is coming under fire from both within and without the marijuana industry.

The Sacramento Bee reports that the “California Cannabis Industry Association became the latest player in the marijuana game to call out Weedmaps for continuing to advertise unlicensed retailers.”

Marijuana Industry & Weedmaps Divided

During the legalization initiative campaign for recreational pot in 2016, the marijuana industry – largely medical marijuana providers and service industry like Weedmaps – was united. As the law has been implemented, local municipalities have made the licensing for pot companies sufficiently restrictive that not every company has a license available to it. Legal cannabis companies are now notifying the Bureau of Cannabis Control of their former colleagues who could not get one of the limited number of licenses.

In February, California Bureau of Cannabis Control Chief Lori Ajax sent a cease and desist letter to Weedmaps instructing the company to stop advertising unlicensed marijuana businesses. Last month, Weedmaps.com responded with a letter to Ajax saying the company is not licensed by the bureau, thus the bureau has no regulatory authority over it.

Weedmaps instead claims that as an “interactive computer service,” it is regulated at the Federal level. Weedmaps specifically chose language from Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act to describe itself. The act states: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

Section 230 Shielded Child Sex Traffickers

Simply put, Section 230 makes removes liability for websites that publish user-generated content on their site, including advertising.

The protections of Section 230 were most recently used to allow online publications like Backpage.com to advertise sexual services in its classified ads. Officials estimate these ads were used by child sex traffickers to sell as many as 10,000 children annually as sex slaves. Federal officials estimate that Backpage made as much as half a billion dollars advertising prostitution.

Congress passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) on April 11, 2018, which amended Section 230 to make it illegal to knowingly aid in sex trafficking. Backpage was seized by the FBI later that month.

SESTA does not apply to the advertisement of illegal activity other than activity related to sex trafficking. User-generated content promoting marijuana sales is protected under Section 230. However, Weedmaps’ use of the Section 230 defense could start a SESTA-type movement in Congress against advertising illegal marijuana sales.

In the battle on Capitol Hill, Google sided against sex trafficking victims and took up cause with Backpage. Google, a political powerhouse on Capitol Hill whose motto until recently was “Don’t be evil,” said that opening up liability for sex trafficking ads may open up liabilities for other user generated content.

In the instance of ads for illegal marijuana vendors, Google may have been right.

New Allies?

As Weedmaps breaks away from its political allies on the state level, Lori Ajax and the Brown Administration may find themselves picking up new allies on the Federal level.

Conservative Attorney General Jeff Sessions would probably be more than willing to help Ajax against illegal marijuana operations.