How weed dispensaries fight for higher awareness through tech

Marijuana businesses need to find creative workarounds to get attention on Google or Facebook, since tech companies still treat them as illegal operations.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
6 min read
Marijuana plants growing at Reef Dispensaries

The marijuana industry is growing in Las Vegas, much like this plant at Reef Dispensaries. But it still has a strained relationship with tech companies in Silicon Valley.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I glance down at the glass case, encircled by a marble countertop. Large flat-screen displays hang above, showing off the merchandise, but I want a closer look.

As I edge forward, the soft white glow of the undercabinet lights by the gray-tiled floors shines on my Nike sneakers. The mix of marble, stone, glass and wood accents gives the space a serene, almost sterile look.

No, I'm not at an Apple Store eyeing an Apple Watch or iPhone X . I'm actually two and a half miles east of the Las Vegas Convention Center, spending my second day at CES at the Jardin Premium Cannabis Dispensary.

And I'm here for work. I swear.

Jardin and other local marijuana dispensaries were expecting a surge in traffic last week as the more than 180,000 attendees of CES flooded into Las Vegas, where recreational weed is now legal. I wanted to check out where convention goers who smoke marijuana might be getting their pot during the week.

In the midst of my tour, my attention falls to a flat screen mounted on a silver stand. It's part of a video booth that records a short animation of a given customer and sends it to that person's email address as a GIF file. There's even a Jardin background to pose in front of, like the backdrops you find during parties at Vegas nightclubs.


The video booth at Jardin also helps with its marketing by collecting email addresses.

Alfred Ng/CNET

But the video booth is more than a chance for a silly memento -- it's a way for Jardin to win over a potential new regular customer.

"Now it's logged their emails and we can use that for our marketing campaign," said John Kent, Jardin's inventory curator, as he types in his own info as an example.

Jardin goes to such lengths in part because it, like others in the legal marijuana business, often gets short shrift in Google's search results or listings on social networks like Facebook or Twitter

It underscores the fine line that tech companies have to navigate with these businesses, since marijuana remains illegal in the eyes of the federal government even as it's gone legit in a number of states. That forces weed businesses like Jardin and neighboring Essence and Reef to take more creative approaches to gain consumer attention.

The online challenge is well documented. Canna Ventures, a marketing firm for marijuana companies, wrote in a blog post last May that marijuana and Google were "a match made in Hell." Nevada laws make it impossible for marijuana companies to use services like Google's AdWords and tracking on social media, which have helped startups in other industries boom.

"Google does not allow marijuana ads on either the display or search side [via our AdWords policies] because the product is illegal on the federal level," said Google spokesman Alex Krasov. "This policy is the same on the publisher side [AdSense]."

Jardin, for its part, gets most of its online traffic from text message blasts and it has a healthy database of numbers. First-time customers at Jardin register a profile with the dispensary, with a name and phone number, similar to signing up for certain website services.

"We just wanted our information to be more available," Kent said. "We allow ourselves to be exposed and found, and hopefully, like the Steve Jobs ' philosophy, we want to offer the best product and the best service the marketplace has to offer."

Banned on Instagram, again and again

Essence, the only dispensary on the Las Vegas strip, similarly features a minimalist design, with white walls and shiny floors. People buy their marijuana while sitting behind a window. It reminds me of how I'd get medicine from my pharmacist, but cleaner.

That appearance offers no hint of one of Essence's greatest challenges: publicity. The shop has had to rebuild its Instagram account of 20,000 followers six different times. That's because about every three to six months, it's banned from the Facebook-owned social network without any warning.

The first time was in 2015, Armen Yemenidjian, the store's owner, said he was distraught. He pulled together all his store's licenses, scanned them and sent them over to Instagram's support team. He wanted to show the social network that the store was operating within the law and that Instagram's ban was hurting its business.

He never received a response. He created new accounts instead, and each got banned in turn. He never knows if his store's accounts will be safe and worries each time he looks at Instagram that it could be taken away from him.

An inside look at a 'farm-to-table' style marijuana dispensary in Las Vegas

See all photos

"It's a frustrating experience because no one is there to listen to what we're saying. No one hears us say, 'we're a legitimate business,'" Yemenidjian said. "For all that work to be wiped out with literally the push of a button, it's disheartening."

And he's not alone. Accounts for Jardin and Reef have also been banned, forcing those businesses to create new accounts each time, too. It usually takes Yemenidjian about four months to build his following back up -- and that's if it doesn't get deleted again in the meantime.

Asked for comment on why it bans accounts like Jardin's and Essence's, Instagram responded by deleting their current pages. A spokeswoman said it was because the shops violated Instagram's Community Guidelines.

Jardin and Essence declined to comment on what happened.

Instagram's community guidelines prohibit promoting drug sales, even if they're legal in the state. Marijuana content, though, is allowed, as long as it's not promoting sales, said a person familiar with Instagram's rules.

Dispensaries also are not allowed to post their websites, address or any kind of contact information on Instagram.

Getting around

Even with the sudden bans, Instagram is a major part of a dispensary's outreach. Jardin's aesthetic makes the store popular among tourists and more importantly, social media influencers. Kent said he sees an Instagram model posting from the store nearly every week, expanding its reach.

Even if the store gets banned on Instagram, people with large followings can post pictures from the store, and with its look, Jardin gives them every reason to.


The Jardin dispensary was designed with a luxurious look that makes it attractive for social media.

Alfred Ng/CNET

With the drugs displayed under glass in Petri dishes with identifying placards near them, it's as if I'm at a cannabis museum. A row of succulent plants in glass domes is perched on one wall. They have nothing to do with marijuana, but they provide a hip vibe that Jardin's founder Adam Cohen favors.

He's had experience building and selling hotels in the Virgin Islands, and said he wanted to bring a "luxury" appeal to dispensaries. The video booth is in front of one of the store's most Instagrammed spot, Cohen said, which helps him get more eyes on a network where advertising is forbidden.

Kent showed me a photo on his phone of him hanging out with the rapper Method Man.

"People see Method Man smoking Jardin cannabis, and then they think, 'Jardin cannabis is probably good,'" Kent said.  

They've also taken advantage of the fact that tweets appearing in Google's search results aren't subject to as strict a standard as promoted posts on Twitter itself. Google places popular tweets in a prominent spot on the first page of search results. Fake news in tweets have surfaced on Google that way, but that indirect route also provides an opening for the marijuana industry to get more attention.

Kent said the company tries to have useful and informational tweets on its Twitter account so that when people type in questions about marijuana, they will see answers from websites, as well as from the dispensary's Twitter account.

Until they can advertise like any other business on Google and social media, the dispensary industry is stuck searching for workarounds instead. Many have called for changes from the tech giants, arguing that they are legitimate businesses and shouldn't be treated like shady drug dealers.

The Reef dispensary features simple wooden tables and strains of marijuana in plastic display cases for customers to get a quick look and smell. Customers flock in on Wednesday in the late afternoon, and I spy many CES badges.

Mike Pizzo, the dispensary's marketing content manager, hopes Google and Facebook will eventually stand up to the federal government on marijuana.

"I love the Google mantra of 'don't be evil,'" Pizzo said. "Let's subscribe to that and think about how many people are helped by cannabis, how many jobs it's created, how many people have voted for it to be legalized."

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