YouTube is the place to go to learn about almost everything. But while most socially acceptable content remains available and searchable, some topics, like cannabis, are scarce.
Cannabis has become much more acceptable today, with the United Nations estimating over 209 million people smoke grass. Though smoke shops and dispensaries open in legal states around the country at a record rate, the online space has yet to keep up.
YouTubers who create cannabis content, colloquially referred to as “weedtubers,” struggle to make monetized content and understand YouTube’s harsh ad-focused environment. Creators told Passionfruit that YouTube’s algorithm and terms of service are confusing and seemingly sporadically enforced when it comes to drug-related videos.
The high life
Alice and Clark Cambell (@ThatHighCouple) have over 150,000 subscribers for their weekly vlogs exploring dispensaries and trying weed products. They told Passionfruit they often have their cannabis content taken down or demonetized, making it so that they can’t make any ad revenue off their hard work.
“The algorithm is a bit of a mystery when it comes to cannabis content,” the Campbells told Passionfruit in a joint statement via email. “It’s hard to know what’s going to get flagged and what won’t. We’ve had some videos that we thought were harmless get taken down, while other videos with more explicit content have been allowed to stay up.”
The Campbells said they believe that “YouTube suppresses cannabis content” and they struggle to figure out which videos of theirs will be flagged or taken down. “One of the biggest issues we have with how YouTube treats cannabis content is the inconsistency,” they said.
Other weedtubers have felt a similar crunch when trying to share cannabis content. Cewpins (@cewpins), who preferred not to share his real name for privacy reasons, has been making cannabis content for the past five years, pulling in over 150,000 subscribers who love to watch him eat munchies, smoke, and teach others about the cannabis lifestyle.
He’s found that YouTube’s automatic flagging system targets drug-related content quite often, getting age-restricted or flagged as advertiser unsafe. Age-restricted content can only be accessed by those that are over 18 and are pushed less by the algorithm. Drinking alcohol or creating cocktails is allowed under the community guidelines, though it does prohibit minor use.
“I have an understanding of how I think the moderation stuff works, but at the end of the day, I don’t know if the things that I think about the algorithm are a hundred percent true,” Cewpins said. “You just get automatically dinged for stuff, and I’ve noticed just a lot of my content will get retroactively flagged.”
Though Cewpins can only guess as to why, since he’s never had a conversation with YouTube outside of a few Twitter messages, he believes his content is placed in a “box” and is more likely to be flagged because he “occasionally talks about drugs and potentially illegal activities.”
“Getting automatically flagged is a real pain because it doesn’t motivate me to put the maximum amount of effort into my video,” Cewpins said. “They could just decide that it doesn’t deserve to get any ad revenue or it deserves an age restriction, so they’re just going to go ahead and show fewer people.”
Robots don’t get stoned
According to Statista, more than 500 hours of video are uploaded every minute to YouTube. The platform needs to use AI-flagging systems in order to keep the site from being overrun with illegal or copyrighted material. But creators report that the bots also seem to target drug-related content, even though YouTube’s rules do allow for some of it to exist.
Educational content about drug use is still allowed and can be monetizable. In April 2021, Google announced it would be “expanding monetization on educational, documentary or news” content that featured “recreational drugs and drug-related content.” At the time, it was heralded as a solid step in the right direction for cannabis content, but it’s unclear if it actually ever made much of a dent.
YouTube’s policies still completely prohibit the “displays of hard drug users” or “selling hard or soft drugs” (they don’t specify how they classify each). YouTube’s drug policy is vague, with the policies claiming that it “might allow videos that depict dangerous acts if they’re meant to be educational, documentary, scientific, or artistic.” Videos that don’t fall under that umbrella are likely to be age-restricted.
YouTube did not respond to Passionfruit’s request for comment via email.
Cannabis is still a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act in the United States alongside drugs like heroin and cocaine, and it is illegal in many countries around the world. Still, it’s unfair to put it in the same bracket as heroin or sniffing glue—especially since cannabis use has become decriminalized in 38 states and in many countries around the world.
Luis Talamantes (@MrTHC), who has been running his 621,000 subscribers channel since 2018, believes his cannabis videos get suppressed and viewers are throttled from his channel. Still, he does see some value in age-restricting cannabis content.
“I have a daughter and a little brother and when I see them watching my videos, I take it off,” Talamantes said. “I do think that a lot of people that are at a certain age shouldn’t be consuming that type of content.”
Keep on rollin’
Talamantes, like the other weedtubers we spoke to, has had to diversify his content portfolio to make a living. His main channel has never been monetized and doesn’t expect to make any money from his marijuana content. Instead, he posts many non-cannabis vlogs on a separate channel (@Mrthc707) which he funnels his viewers to.
Many creators seem to diversify their content, platforms of choice, and revenue streams in an effort to attract a wider audience, avoid content suppression, and build a sustainable career. Cewpins streams multiple days a week on Twitch, and the Campbells make most of their money from brand deals.
If you want to get any cannabis content past the algorithm you are going to have to be clever. Creators speculate that titles or captions that contain phrases “like smoking a joint” or “hitting a bong” will get automatically flagged. Also just speaking words with weed-related phrases can trigger the algorithm.
Still, if you are hell-bent on creating cannabis content on YouTube, there’s a whole audience waiting to smoke with you.
“The most important thing is to create content that you’re passionate about and that resonates with your audience,” the Campbells said.