My Banned Vans

Despite legalization, cannabis images still get censored

Produced by N&R Publications, a division of News & Review.

Vans has a website that lets customers upload their own images onto shoes. I love this site so much that I've designed three pairs, including a pair of loafers with a photo of cannabis leaves on them. But after paying for the custom shoes, Vans canceled my order and returned the money.

They didn't say why. I already used this same photo to print business cards through, and Staples allowed it on a coffee mug. Was it flagged by some anti-cannabis algorithm? I tried getting an answer from two public relations directors at Vans' parent corporation, VF. I sent a screenshot of the shoe, but neither responded. So, I logged into the official Vans chat-line and defended my cannabis shoe design to their friendly representative, Brandi.

“We cannot accept any images that are taken from the internet,” answered Brandi. When I explained the photograph was mine, and not “taken,” she typed, “or advertises any illegal service.” When I countered that it wasn't advertising, she stopped offering reasons and sent a link to Vans' official policy.

Despite increasing legalization, cannabis images are censored almost arbitrarily. Although there are thousands of cannabis businesses on Facebook, in 2016 it removed the account of Dixie Elixirs, a popular cannabis beverage company. Soon after, Facebook's subsidiary Instagram removed the accounts of two Canadian cannabis companies.

Many newspapers don't accept cannabis ads (obviously not this one). Last year a Northern California T-shirt company refused to print a grower's logo design. The Nevada Bureau of Taxation censored a 2018 charity calendar of budtender pin-up girls because one woman held a joint near her mouth, implying “an intent to consume.” Starting this May, the U.S. Postal Service will stop delivering mail with marijuana images on custom-printed stamps.

Even the cannabis community is debating about changing inappropriate strain names like Green Crack, Wet Dream, and MILF, which was popularized by the Showtime series “Weeds.” A recent editorial in 420 Magazine suggested Girl Scout Cookie be renamed “Cherry Pie Kush.”

Maybe someday Vans will make my censored shoes. But it will take a sea change of public opinion before the stigma surrounding cannabis completely disappears.