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Why Is Facebook Taking Down Marijuana Dispensary Pages?

Marijuana is legal in some capacity in 23 states and the District of Columbia, but Facebook doesn't seem to "like" it very much these days.

Over the past two weeks, the social media giant has reportedly been shutting down the Facebook pages of state-legal cannabis businesses across the country. While the total number of marijuana business pages that have been disabled is unclear, NBC News has confirmed at least a dozen businesses in six states that have experienced shutdowns.

From medical marijuana dispensaries in New Jersey, Arizona and Nevada to recreational shops in Oregon, Colorado and Washington state, Facebook is going after legitimate cannabis businesses for what it claims are violations of the social network's "Community Standards."

In New Jersey, where medical marijuana is legal, three of the state's five dispensaries, or Alternative Treatment Centers (ATCs), they're called, had their Facebook pages shut down last week. Breakwater Alternative Treatment Center, Compassionate Sciences Alternative Treatment Center (CSATC) and Garden State Dispensary all received messages from Facebook stating their pages had been "unpublished" because content posted on their pages "doesn't follow the Facebook Terms."

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The surprise move stunned dispensary owners and angered patients, who said they rely on the up-to-the-minute information these pages provide about the latest strains that help alleviate debilitating symptoms.

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"Facebook pages are an important link to let patients know which strains of cannabis or marijuana they have available, the best strains for which medical conditions, and to allow the patients to interact with the ATCs," said Peter Rosenfeld, one of the 5,668 registered patients in the state's program.

Rosenfeld is also a board member of the Coalition of Medical Marijuana of New Jersey (CMMNJ) — an educational organization that works with the state in the development and implementation of the medical marijuana laws. He said Facebook has not been clear with dispensaries on what they can and cannot post on the social media site.

"I think it was very capricious and arbitrary of Facebook to have taken this action in the first place," he said. "They at least have a responsibility to explain, in detail, why they took the action they did and how to avoid these actions in the future."

After being shut down last on Feb. 2, CSATC made edits to its page, removing what it thought Facebook might see as "offending material," and appealed the decision. Its page was reinstated on Feb. 7. Breakwater Alternative Treatment Center, which was also shut down Feb. 2,started a new page altogether last Friday. Garden State Dispensary can no longer be found on Facebook.

Still, many dispensaries say they're angry because they don't understand why they were shut down or what they need to do to keep from being shut down.

Mary's Medicinals, headquartered in Denver, Colorado, makes products like patches, gels pens and capsules that use cannabis. Mary's has been in business for three years and is best known for its transdermal cannabis patch. While there is an ongoing federal ban on cannabis, it is legal for both medical and adult recreational use in four states, including Colorado — the first state in the U.S. to legalize it for recreational use.

Like a lot of businesses these days, Mary's Medicinals had a Facebook page that was first launched in 2013. It had 20,000 followers and many reviews of its products. But in late January, Facebook pulled the plug on the company's page.

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When employees attempted to login to their Facebook account, they received a notification that told them their page had been unpublished. They were told that Facebook "remove[s] any promotion or encouragement of drug use," and were given an opportunity to appeal.

In an email to NBC News, a Facebook spokesperson said "These pages have been removed for violating our Community Standards, which outline what is and is not allowed on Facebook."

The spokesperson pointed to the company's Community Standards page where, under "Regulated Good" it states that Facebook "prohibits any attempts by unauthorized dealers to purchase, sell, or trade prescription drugs, marijuana or firearms."

Graham Sorkin, Mary's director of business development, is upset about Facebook shutting down their page and takes issue with the use of the term "unauthorized dealers"

"We are not unauthorized dealers — we are licensed by the state of Colorado and follow more regulations than just about any industry in the United States," Sorkin said.

Sorkin said that while their page did feature their products, Mary's wasn't selling anything on Facebook and that the page was strictly informational.

In an open letter to the social media giant Sorkin wrote, "When you accepted our money and entered a business relationship allowing us to advertise, you encouraged us to invest time and energy into our page, which we did. When you stopped our ads but allowed us to continue to operate our page, I assumed we'd at least be able to continue our organic efforts to share information with our very engaged community."

"You arbitrarily shut that all down. Is the world now a better place?"

But Facebook's moves may not be quite so arbitrary.

The company's "Regulated Goods" policy also states that "If you post an offer to purchase or sell alcohol, tobacco, or adult products, we expect you to comply with all applicable laws and carefully consider the audience for that content."

The key words in there are "all applicable laws."

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Attorney Kaiser Wahab, who has represented clients in dealings with Facebook, said while these dispensaries that have seen their pages shut down are legitimate businesses under state laws, they're still viewed as illegal under federal law.

"If it's something that could be illegal on a federal level, then you have to look at your operation as it exists on Facebook in a continuum. And one end of the continuum is hey, we're just discussing the industry," he said.

But Wahab said many of the pages that were shut down were providing information about what was available for purchase including things like photos, details on strains of cannabis available or price lists. He said the closer a dispensary's Facebook page gets to being in a store, the more trouble that company is going to run into with the social network.

"The thing people need to recognize is, if the Facebook side of your operation is an extension of [your] own website and it's part of your selling strategy, that's going to get you in trouble. "

"I think a lot of people when they first saw this happening, thought that Facebook is acting very obtuse, possibly motivated by some ideology," he said, "There really is sort of a very basic legal concern there."

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Legal marijuana is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States. According to a recent report from research group ArcView, the cannabis industry is growing at a compounded annual rate of 30 percent. In 2015, national legal sales grew to $5.4 billion up from $4.6 billion in 2014, fueled by explosive growth in adult-use market sales, which grew from $351 million in 2014 to $998 million, an increase of 184 percent.

So why would Facebook wage war on weed after no such activity in the last couple of years? Wahab theorized it could perhaps be pegged to the winding down of the Obama administration and the unknowns that lie ahead in whatever administration takes over next.

While the Department of Justice has been relatively hands-off in states where marijuana has been legalized, one of the biggest obstacles for the industry is that cannabis remains illegal under federal law.

"The reality is the Department of Justice's stance can change literally next year when we have a new president — easily," Wahab said.

"This is [Facebook] being preemptive and proactive. Whether it's an overreaction or not is not something that they care to be on the wrong side of. It's an abundance of caution that they're showing."