By , Published: February

Following bewilderment and speculation among cannabis advocates, Facebook confirmed to U.S. News on Friday that state-legal businesses that sell marijuana may have their pages deleted on the basis that selling the drug remains a federal crime.

The company says the policy is not new – despite the surprise that greeted the removal of at least two medical marijuana dispensaries in New Jersey this week – and that pages must be flagged by Facebook users for the company to take action.

Removal of pages is made on a case-by-case basis, according to the company, for violating its community standards. It’s unclear if a company that sells marijuana can survive internal review by Facebook if it does not specifically offer to do so on its social media page.

One of the most prominent opponents of marijuana legalization, former presidential drug policy adviser Kevin Sabet, says he’s thrilled that Facebook is removing marijuana business pages.

“Many of us have been employing this strategy for some time,” says Sabet, who leads the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

“There are hundreds of pages that advertise illegal marijuana sales – things like pot candies and sodas – and many that make outrageous medical claims,” he says. “We commend Facebook for being responsible and standing up to the big marijuana industry.”

Sabet says he encourages like-minded Facebook users to click “report” on the page of any marijuana-selling business they see. “I think we’ve seen them start enforcing their own policies, which is encouraging,” he says.

Before the dust settled, speculation was rampant.

Attorney Kaiser Wahab, who has represented clients in dealings with Facebook, theorized that a shake-up in Facebook’s legal team or some change in risk assessment – perhaps pegged to the winding down of President Barack Obama’s administration – played a role in the apparent shift.

“If you want to play conspiracy theorist, they are anti-marijuana – but you’ll never get to that unless there’s a smoking gun,” Wahab told U.S. News, suggesting as a more likely explanation “somebody upstairs got spooked and it’s going to take a grass-roots outcry to get Facebook to un-spook.”

Wahab says it’s plausible the company decided ad displays on pot business pages could constitute interstate commerce, triggering legal consequences in the worst-case scenario.

Mason Tvert, spokesman for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, ridiculed the anti-pot policy. “Why is it OK for a 15-year-old to ‘like’ Smirnoff and Budweiser on Facebook, but not OK for a cancer patient to learn about the state-legal medical marijuana dispensaries in their area?” he said.

Marijuana possession for any reason outside limited research remains a federal crime, but about half of states and the nation’s capital allow medical marijuana. Four states, potentially to be joined by many more this year, have laws allowing for regulated recreational marijuana markets.

Backed by broad public support, the Obama administration has allowed states significant leeway in regulating cannabis markets, despite the remaining federal prohibition. A future president or unfavorable court ruling theoretically could shutter state-legal businesses, though the leading candidates in each major party’s presidential nomination contest support continued state autonomy.