After years of controversy, Weedmaps appears to be finally going legit. Last week, the popular online guide to weed pledged that it would no longer accept listings from the unlicensed pot peddlers who, with its help, have vastly outperformed the struggling legal market in California.
While most of the reaction from the legal-cannabis industry and from government officials has been cautiously positive so far, it’s the “cautiously” part that should probably be emphasized, at least for now. That’s the approach the governor’s office is taking: “While this is a signal that Weedmaps seems to be taking our priority of compliance to heart, like anything, the devil is in the details,” tweeted Nicole Elliot, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s senior advisor on cannabis.
The details are sketchy, and the skepticism is merited. Weedmaps, based in Orange County and operating nationally, has for years been brazenly telling its critics to go screw, when it has said anything at all on this topic. Now, all of a sudden, it’s all about doing the right thing. It framed its announcement of the new policy with what seems like a bit of a head fake: the news that the company is launching an “equity program” to help minority cannabis entrepreneurs to get themselves licensed. It isn’t until the bottom of the press release that we finally learn, in a single, short paragraph, that the company means to comply with the desire of the state government and the legal-pot industry to cast off the unlicensed operators.
What’s unclear so far is how it will go about doing that. It likely won’t be an automated process, at least at first. Under the change, any pot operation advertising on Weedmaps must now provide a license number, which can be checked against state records. If someone finds that a fake number is being used, Weedmaps will yank the listing.
While it’s not clear how effective that will be, it at least marks a major departure from the rhetoric the company has used in the past. In March 2018, a few months after legal recreational use began, the state’s Bureau of Cannabis Control sent a cease-and-desist order to Weedmaps, telling the company that it was “aiding and abetting” illicit pot businesses, and that it must knock it off. Weedmaps issued a public response that it was only a technology company, and — just like Facebook, YouTube, and Yelp — wasn’t responsible for what its users did on the site. At the time, the company explicitly defended illicit pot merchants. “Scrubbing the Internet of the reality of unlicensed operators that have created thousands of jobs over the last 20 years does nothing to fix the underlying issues,” its statement read.
Even before the controversy began, Weedmaps had started acquiring its reputation. One of its founders, Justin Harfield, launched Weedmaps basically as a hobby when he was a college stoner. Before he turned it into a business, he authored e-books such as “The Ultimate Guide to Picking Up Women on Facebook.” Doug Francis, his eventual partner when it came time to turn Weedmaps into a business, was operating a chain of clinics where people could easily get a doctor’s prescription for medical marijuana.
Francis was CEO, but in March he was replaced in that role by the company’s president, Chris Beals, and Francis became chairman. It’s possible that the new regime thinks it wise for Weedmaps to take on a more professional bearing.
Weedmaps wouldn’t make anyone available for an interview, but issued this statement to Chronic Town, again playing up the “equity” bit: “Weedmaps always has and will continue to advocate for a flourishing, legal cannabis market, and taking action to address social equity is integral to making that a reality,” the statement reads in part. “As it pertains to retail licensing and the new requirements that will be implemented to advertise on our platform, we will have more to share in the weeks ahead.”
It’s not clear when the new policy will be in place.
Operators of legal pot shops say that, at the very least, it’s a step in the right direction. “I believe they are sincere,” said Debby Goldberry, owner of Magnolia Wellness in Oakland. “Magnolia left Weedmaps long ago, when we discovered how little they charged our unlicensed competitors to advertise, compared to what they were charging us. We are way more interested in rejoining their service now.”
Weedmaps played a big part in enabling the illicit pot market to thrive during the early period of legal recreational pot, Goldsberry said. It “helped empower and embolden the underground market in a way that created two systems for sales: one safe and regulated, and one potentially dangerous to health and safety. The transition to the legal market would have been easier, if they would have set a compliance standard that others could follow, rather than acting like loud-voiced outlaws.”
But it’s probably too late to do much about that now. Weedmaps or no, there would be a huge underground market, thanks to the cost and difficulty of operating legally in California, not to mention the high taxes and resulting high prices that cause people to look up their old weed dealers. Neither Goldsberry nor very many other observers think Weedmaps‘ policy change will make much of a dent in the illicit market. The problems of legal operators won’t be relieved, she said, “until licenses become more accessible and affordable.”