Is Google Banning Marijuana-Related Activity in Its App Store?

In the latest edition of ‘Google being a pain in the ass,’ the search engine giant recently banned apps that ‘facilitate’ the sale of weed on the Google Play Store. It doesn’t matter if the app is completely legal; it has to go. This is terrible news for the likes of Weedmaps and Eaze. The former has over one million downloads, whereas Eaze’s weed-finding app has been downloaded 50,000 times.

What the Hell is Going On?

According to Google, the changes it plans to implement are not as serious as the language suggests. For instance, Android apps can promote the herb but can’t facilitate the sale of any products that contain THC. Other ‘violations’ include enabling users to order weed through an in-store app shopping cart feature and assisting users in arranging the pickup or delivery of cannabis.

Google says it isn’t looking to ban the apps and plans to work with developers to ensure their apps remain compliant with the changes. A spokesperson for Google said that the apps must move the shopping cart flow outside of the actual app. The firm generously gave developers 30 days to comply.

The senior vice president of policy and public affairs at Eaze, David Mack, was understandably bemused by the announcement. He said that this action makes it more difficult for adults to legally purchase marijuana. Mack went on to say that he is concerned by the general trend, which prevents adults from purchasing legal items on apps.

Google isn’t the first Big Tech firm to clamp down on marijuana and its cannabinoids. In May 2019, eBay insisted that it would continue banning the sale of CBD products on the site. When you consider that cannabidiol is now legal in most of the United States, and dozens of countries around the world, it is a puzzling attitude to take.

Facebook has had a strained relationship with weed for some time now. Back in July 2018, pages with ‘cannabis’ and ‘marijuana’ did not appear in search results. You could find the pages via direct links but couldn’t see them without bookmarks or the actual URL.

It was widely believed that Facebook was shadow banning these pages. For the record, a shadow ban is when a user’s web resource, such as a web forum post or social media page, is only visible to an individual user. In 2017, Twitter also briefly blocked all searches for ‘marijuana.’ Apple previously banned marijuana-related apps on its store but lifted the ban in 2015, and has more or less left the issue alone ever since.

It so happens that Google hasn’t just targeted marijuana. It also prohibits apps that facilitate the sale of tobacco. The ban includes e-cigarettes. What Google has not banned are apps that help you purchase alcohol, although it takes a dim view on any app that encourages the irresponsible use of tobacco or alcohol.

Why Has Google Taken This Step?

In a blog post in May 2019, Google announced that it was making a series of policy changes to make sure its App Store is a safe and positive environment for kids and families. Before you start thinking that Google is being altruistic, at the beginning of the year, Google Play received an FTC complaint. It was accused of not doing enough to vet the apps that appeared in the children’s section.

Oddly enough, an article appeared in Wired magazine in April 2019 which criticized Google Play Store for allowing kids to download and play games which involve murder, gore, and even gambling! A prime example is Mad Max Zombies, a first-person shooting game that includes the use of realistic firearms, walking corpses, and lots of blood.

If you are used to gory video games, you’ll know the score. However, games of this nature are usually rated accordingly. On the Google Play Store, Mad Max Zombies was rated by its creator as Pegi 3. This means the game is apparently suitable for all ages. Wired sent Google a list of 36 games with content inappropriate for the ratings. Eventually, the company responded by removing Mad Max Zombies, re-rating it as Pegi 12, and re-releasing it under the name Mad War Zombies.

Google may claim that the ban is down to a bid to offer family-friendly content, but there is a more likely reason. You have to remember that Google makes a LOT of money from the Play Store. It takes 30% of all subscriptions, purchases, and microtransaction payments, with the subscription fee cut falling to 15% after a year. Android mobile game revenue on the Play Store alone provided revenue of over $21 billion in 2018.

The likely reason why Google is making this change is down to compliance with the law. Remember, Google operates in the whole of the United States and remains subject to federal law. As we all know, the government continues to outlaw weed on a federal level, even though it is now legal in Canada. Therefore, it makes sense to implement this ban to avoid litigation from any federal-level entities looking to punish those who promote marijuana.

Merry Christmas – Prohibition is Over

Well, not quite; but we are tantalizingly close to it being the case. Elizabeth Ashford of Eaze spoke of her disappointment in an email. She described Google’s action as a “disappointing development that only helps the illegal market thrive.” Ashford went on to say that she believed that eventually, Apple, Google, and Facebook would do the right thing and allow legal weed firms to conduct business on the platforms of these companies.

She concluded by saying, “prohibition is over, voters across the country have legalized cannabis.” While it is a hyperbolic statement, Ashford isn’t completely wrong. Medical marijuana is now legal in 33 states and D.C. Also, recreational marijuana is legal in 11 states plus D.C. Then there is the small matter of complete legality (with caveats) up north in Canada.

Ultimately, it is all about the bottom line when it comes to corporate America. Back in September 2018, the co-founder of Google, Sergey Brin, joked about supplying staff with joints. He said that he asked if it was possible to smoke them on the patio, but was told it takes time for the marijuana laws to take effect. Brin then claimed it was a “huge, huge, disappointment.”

Regardless of what he thinks about marijuana on a personal level, Brin, and others like him, know that they have profits to protect, and lots of people to keep happy. As long as cannabis remains federally illegal, major firms will cover their collective asses when it comes to matters concerning the herb.

At least it isn’t all bad news. In May 2019, Square, the major payment processing service, announced a pilot program that allowed sellers of hemp-derived CBD products to access credit card processing services. It is an important step forward because, as you may know, traditional financial institutions are running a mile from the industry due to federal law.

Eventually, we will get to the stage where adults are not banned from buying certain legal products on apps. Unfortunately, this day is as far away as the end of prohibition, which seems unlikely in a Republican-controlled Senate.