Guns, conspiracy theories, and graphic images of bestiality are just a few of the things YouTube has been struggling to moderate lately. After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, YouTube has been cracking down on gun-related channels and trying to stem the spread of blatantly false claims about Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student activists.
That crackdown recently made its way to a corner of YouTube that is neither dangerous nor disgusting, unless you’re Jeff Sessions: marijuana channels. Beginning in mid-April, rumblings of a crackdown became broad removals, a move that avid cannabis consumers speculated is tied to the crackdown on firearms-related channels. Google’s video platform seems to be targeting educational videos that instruct viewers on how to grow marijuana, as well as advocacy and news channels.
Clara Sativa, who helped run the Spanish-language YouTube channel Marihuana Televisión for the past decade, told The Outline the channel has gotten many warnings over the years from the video platform about age restrictions and copyright (Sativa asked to use a pseudonym due to the sensitive nature of her coverage). But the team had taken great pains to comply with YouTube’s terms and acted swiftly to remedy any issues that arose.
“We wouldn’t be able to do our program about cannabis… in the mass media. That’s why we were on YouTube all these years,” said Sativa. While normally based in Barcelona, Spain, where adult-use marijuana is allowed through non-profit co-ops, she is currently in the Bay Area researching legalization in California. It’s even more confusing to her that YouTube is based in a state that has legalized recreational marijuana.
For many consumers who do not have access to affordable cannabis, growing their own is their only means, whether or no governments allow it. Decades of prohibition have hampered cannabis research, leaving desperate families to experiment in their kitchens in hopes of finding the right treatment. While anti-legalization lawmakers will argue that we should wait for more research, patients often cannot afford to wait when a seizure could lead to hospitalization or death.
Some grow their own marijuana out of medical necessity. A father in Australia is currently facing drug charges for growing medical cannabis for his daughters who suffer from Crohn’s disease. In Peru, mothers of epileptic children helped legalize medical marijuana after their makeshift cannabis oil lab was raided by police, spurring public backlash.
Marihuana Televisión spanned all types of content from news reports to medical marijuana education to cultivation. “It’s not [about] those images of Cannabis Cups or people smoking. [YouTube was] warning us about images of plants and our news programs,” she said. Cultivation videos were among the channel’s most popular content.
“Cultivation is super important,” Jorge Cervantes, an internationally renowned expert on cannabis cultivation who saw his channel removed from the site last week, told The Outline (Cervantes also asked to use a pseudonym). Cervantes has authored a dozen books on marijuana horticulture, released DVD grow guides, and has penned cultivation columns for High Times and The Cannabist. “If we didn’t have cultivators, we wouldn’t have cannabis.”
Cervantes says he started posting videos to YouTube within a year of the streaming service’s launch in 2005. While he was already well-known in the weed world, YouTube helped him reach a wider audience. While hundreds of his videos have been scrubbed from the site, a search for his name on YouTube now turns up a lot of his content that has been reposted by others.
“I’m quite flattered that people would copy my things. It’s very nice that they think so much of me,” he said. “At the same time, I’m the original poster of all this stuff and YouTube has taken my things down and given me no recourse whatsoever. That’s the hard part for me. I cannot defend myself.”
Cervantes spent more than a decade posting videos without issues. But he started seeing warning signs in the months leading up to the shutdown in the form of age restrictions and notifications that his content was “not suitable for most advertisers.” Other cannabis channels have also speculated that advertising revenue was to blame. But Marihuana Televisión and many other channels were not monetizing their videos on the platform.
“We prohibit content offering the sale of certain highly regulated substances, like marijuana. When we’re made aware of this type of content, we remove it,” a YouTube spokesperson said in a statement.
While YouTube maintains that it allows educational or advocacy content, its policy prohibits channels from linking to sites that sell cannabis. Sativa maintains that Marihuana Televisión never linked to dispensaries or promoted sales of the drug.
Even as the platform has taken these channels down, it’s plenty of smoke-sesh videos up, a choice that is befuddling to content creators. “We were not doing dab sessions or [videos of] people just talking and smoking. We were informing and educating. Our presenters were not smoking,” said Sativa.
YouTube has a three-strikes policy for violating its community guidelines. Both Cervantes and Sativa felt that the YouTube strikes came in such quick succession that they didn’t have time to properly respond.
“We received two strikes in two days while we were putting everything in age restriction,” said Sativa, who says her channel was shut down before a third strike.
While YouTube admitted that there may have been “mistaken removals” with its firearms channels, it has not been so forthcoming about cannabis content. On Thursday, the YouTube account for cannabis news site Leafly was also removed.
Meanwhile, marijuana channels are decamping to other streaming platforms like Vimeo and marijuana-focused sites like WeedTube. But none of these platforms offer the same kind of audience and reach as YouTube. While Marihuana Television has popped up on Vimeo for now, it is still trying to appeal YouTube’s decision.
Cervantes, for his part, is moving on.
“I feel betrayed. I feel they have used me to build their cause and once I was no longer useful to them they threw me away like an old sock,” he said. “I’m going to figure out other options… I don’t spend my energy fighting somebody not worth fighting.”