By Heath D’Alessio
As someone who grew up a teenage stoner, with first hand experience of the stigma and misinformation that surrounds weed- I was thrilled at the potential of legalization to open up a national dialogue about cannabis. Unfortunately, despite the policy changes we’ve implemented in Canada (policy changes made to ‘protect youth’) online spaces continue to censor and silence cannabis education initiatives. Now, working as a drug educator for a government-funded, cannabis education campaign, I find myself constantly frustrated fighting outdated social media policies on widely used platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok which actively prevent the mere mention of “cannabis”.
This is preventing youth from accessing evidence informed resources, and preventing organizations like ours from supporting these efforts. Three years into legalization, there are still so many barriers and so much stigma that continue to prevent honest, evidence-based education about cannabis, especially with young people. Because of the pandemic, we have all had to adapt to online engagement over the last year. And on top of that, we know youth already relied heavily on social media to stay connected and informed, still, it has become nearly impossible to promote and hold evidence informed conversations about cannabis – particularly critical as both cannabis (and social media) use have increased during the pandemic.
Currently, I work as the project facilitator for Get Sensible, a youth-led cannabis education campaign led by Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy and funded by Health Canada. While we originally planned to host workshops and pop-up booths on university campuses, COVID has forced us to pivot to a completely virtual approach. Considering the role of social media in young people’s lives, especially as a way to stay connected and find community during lockdown- we saw this is as much of an opportunity as a challenge. The real challenge, however, lies in having our educational messages silenced because the social media we use aren’t based in Canada and don’t reflect our liberalized cannabis policies.
When we try to talk about different methods of consumption, different motivations for use, and encourage open dialogue and self reflection- we get flagged for breaking community guidelines and our messages are censored. This is the reality for a lot of cannabis education initiatives trying to use social media to promote conversation, reduce stigma, and spread evidence and information about cannabis.
We’re creating graphics and TikToks to encourage young people to reflect on their drug use- and before they get flagged or reported they are well received. One of my videos, which focused on the potential harms of smoking out of plastic bottles and cans, got over 3 million views before it was taken down.
The message was simple risk reduction, and young people were tagging their friends in the comments, encouraging them to head a warning in my video about the dangers of smoking out of plastic bottles and cans. The video was taken down for “promoting illegal activity.” I felt so defeated: young people were hearing an important harm reduction message and sharing it with their friends, sharing experiences in the comments and asking questions, until it was reported and taken down for promoting drug use: a common misconception about harm reduction initiatives.
Given our increased reliance on virtual spaces, the reality is that censorship and access to information are heavily influenced by large corporations like Facebook, and that social media companies are preventing young people in Canada and around the world from sharing and accessing information they need to make informed choices about cannabis use. Young people (not just in Canada) should be encouraged to talk about substances, and to develop their health literacy. It’s time these social media giants get with the times- liberalization of cannabis laws is happening all across the globe, and it’s a disservice to youth to prevent them from sharing and accessing evidence informed cannabis knowledge and harm reduction education.
Call to action: Our campaign is relying heavily on word of mouth for promotion, we aren’t able to use any paid promotions and have experienced shadow-banning; which is a practice where social media content is barred from appearing on people’s news feeds and not being recommended to potential followers, making it nearly impossible to increase your reach and audience. If you’d like to support our efforts, please check out our website www.getsensible.org and follow us on our social media @get_sensible on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter.