When Youtube reportedly started removing cannabis-related channels and content from its platform in April 2018, it sent many content creators wandering through the digital wilderness. Arend Richards was one of those nomads until he created his own platform, The Weedtube. Contributor Kieran Delamont examines both Richards and his creation to get a sense of what happens when stoners feel like they don't have a place on the internet.
The first time I smoked weed out of a pipe I got the whole thing all backwards. I inhaled with the carb wide open, closed it when I was ready to stop. Either I was guessing (wrong), or I was taught (also wrong) by someone in the circle. Whichever it was, it was all wrong.
Arend Richards has made a career off of novices like me. In 2017, Richards, who had been posting on YouTube for a couple of years at that point, posted a video titled “How to Smoke Weed from a Pipe for Beginners.” It delivered no more and no less than what it promises, with Richards' rapid-fire delivery and quirky tips to the camera being the only exceptions. It's a 5 minutes, 28 seconds long, a video about how to smoke weed from a pipe. As a video, it is basically exactly what you think it would be.
That unassuming video kicked off a YouTube career for Richards.
It was the first one he had posted that ever really did any numbers (more than 600,000 at the time of publishing), brought in any of the subscriber base the virality draws. “And that's the end of that story,” Arend said.
It isn't, really. That video is the start of it. You see, Richards had found a home on YouTube, where he was known as The Gay Stoner, and he found a following, a family — one that never frowned on the fact that he was gay and never frowned on the fact that he smoked weed. Richards' story is a quintessential one about life on the internet in the Age of Weed and the Age of Social Media. His career lives at those crossroads. It's the 21st century influencer economy getting in on the weed game; Richards may as well be its poster child.
And then in 2018, at the moment when that life he'd made for himself was on the verge of going up in smoke, Richards broke free from YouTube, in a spinoff and protest against the tech giant he launched a competing site, called the WeedTube — which he's still running today, with ambitions of making it a home for “adult, non-porn content” that, beyond just weed, wants to be a home for free speech on the internet.
YouTube Made for a Happy Home
That video in 2017 was the moment Richards hit his niche: cannabis YouTube. It was a bit accidental. “I just kind of leaned into it,” he said. “About six months in, I found out there were other people doing it. I thought I was the only person out here smoking weed on YouTube.”
Richards built up enough of a following to make YouTubing and smoking weed a full-time gig. He had, in a lot of ways, an enviable job. Professional stoner, making videos about whatever happened to be on his mind that day. It was usually about weed, with titles such as “3 OUNCE INSTANT HOTBOX W/ AN AIR PUMP.” Richards posted reviews, product videos, and silly videos about smoking weed, which he does a lot on his videos.
It's YouTube in its peak form: collegiate goofiness.
But often it wasn't. Richards said his goal was always to post about things other than cannabis as well, to share what the world looked like when you see it through his eyes. That could take any number of forms — videos where he talks about gender and sexuality, videos where he discusses his own social life, and videos where he just goofs off with his friends. Pretty standard vlogger behavior, really.
Watching the back catalog of videos is a bit like thumbing through a photo album of Richards' life, where all the happy or exciting or interesting bits were caught on tape. That Richards is smoking weed in many of them pretty much encapsulates the role cannabis plays in his life.
In short, it was a pretty good time for him, and for cannabis YouTube more generally. “We call it the time before the chaos. … It was my first taste of true success,” he said. “I was kicked out of my house when I was 16 when I came out of the closet, and I had worked every day of my life since, just to make sure that I was never homeless again. To really be making money from something I enjoy doing at the same time was a blessing. I was very, very happy.”
The YouTube Crackdown and Birth of WeedTube
Then, the chaos. In spring 2018, YouTube began began taking down cannabis-related content. Whole accounts, many of which had been beacons in the underground cannabis growing community in the late 2000s when YouTube was just getting off the ground, or who use YouTube as a secure place to organize the global cannabis movement, started getting taken down. Videos were age-restricted. Whole accounts were suspended, leaving content creators without their livelihood or their following. For the cannabis community that existed on YouTube, it was no small thing.
Richards' account was spared, but many others, including his friends', were banned. He took a very on-brand step and vowed to quit YouTube in a video titled “I'm Quitting YouTube (Not Clickbait).” In its place, he started The WeedTube in April 2018 — a conceptual duplicate of YouTube in virtually every respect, except for the crucial distinction that creators are allowed to post about weed there. (Richard still posts sponsored content and unboxing videos on his original YouTube account, because as he explains in his farewell post, “daddy gotta get that coin.”)
“I said, 'Okay — I'm not waiting for anybody else to do it, let's do this,'” he said. He took the lead and, with some other creators, scraped together a bit of money for data servers and with the help of $15,000 of money raised on GoFundMe began building The WeedTube with, as Richards puts it, “not even a little bit” of experience building a website.
For now, the site is like a weed-themed, bare-bones YouTube. Creators can upload videos into a handful of categories, including politics and news, growing, or health. According to Richards, more than 6,000 people have posted upwards of 35,000 videos to the site, with that number continuing to rise. Many of the videos aren't terribly sophisticated — titles including “Get high with me before my first day of work!” or '100 HITS OF WEED CHALLENGE' — but they're entertaining nonetheless. Hanging out on The WeedTube is kind of like hanging out in a stoner smoke sesh. It's pulpy content, but comforting and relaxed, too. None of it seems to take itself too seriously. Creators who have followings on other social media platforms such as Instagram who are able to direct to the site generate significant view counts; others remain in the double- to triple-digit range.
It's now just over a year old, and doing well enough. Richards has attracted a few high-profile weed YouTubers, including Koala Puffs or Medicated Marley, to post regularly on his site. Richards says he gives creators a better cut on monetization than YouTube, though it's hard to verify: Richards said he gives creators 52 percent of ad revenues, which is lower than YouTube's standard 55 percent cut, but higher than the reported 38 percent cut of the revenues that creators get when the fees taken by multi-channel networks, which offer professional representation and certain protections for creators, are factored in. It's a viable business, though a laborious one: Richards said he “had to personally sell every single ad on WeedTube to a cannabis-related company.” Richards is touting it as an answer to the cannabis industry's fraught relationship with social media
But it hasn't been an easy needle to thread. Creating a viable alternative to YouTube that remains a safe and inclusive space forces Richards to answer some of the most challenging questions surrounding life on the internet. Ironically, content moderation is perhaps the toughest aspect to navigate on a forum allowing creators greater latitude for content and expression.
“People look for video content sites to upload graphic material to that won't get removed, and we've become a huge target of that now,” Richards said. “So whenever something graphically violent happens, they just upload it to The Weed Tube because we're just another video hub that isn't overpoliced like YouTube, so that has been a problem.”
After a white supremacist killed 50 people March 15, 2019, at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, The WeedTube was flooded with people trying to post copies of the livestreamed video. Richards had to have a web tech stay up all night taking the videos down.
Graphic violence seems like a fairly obvious choice for removal. But what about controversial political speech? By simply trying to create a weed-friendly video hosting service, Richards is forcing himself to answer extremely difficult questions regarding how the internet is moderated. It's what drove him to make The WeedTube in the first place. It's something he and the internet can't seem to get away from or ignore.
Richards still seems to be learning where The WeedTube sits (or where he sits) on these difficult questions. "I am an advocate for free speech. If someone else says, 'well, what about something like Alex Jones? Like if Alex Jones is uploading, are you going to allow that?' And I said yes, because it's freedom of speech,” Richards said. Surely, I asked, Alex Jones — who has been kicked off nearly every mainstream content platform for hate speech — would be out of bounds. People have asked Richards this before. “[Colleagues] said, 'Well sometimes it's hate speech.' I said — 'Well, I don't believe in hate speech for either side.'”
It's a messy, contradictory position to take, but one that highlights the dynamic of the internet in 2019 — where battling against one form of perceived censorship means entering a fraught cultural debate around freedom of speech. Does rejecting one form of censorship mean embracing all forms of speech, even the hateful kind? Becoming an arbiter of whether hate speech is permissible on a given platform does not seem like what Richards set out to do in starting The WeedTube. When Richards' dedication to creating weed content drifts into ideological territory, he ends up having to make these kinds of choices.
A Hole in the Historical Record
But while Richards and other cannabis YouTubers experienced the crackdown as a matter of personal loss, be it of income or a sense of community, the public loses an important piece of the global cannabis movement's history, too. What is lost in the ongoing crackdown against cannabis content — much of which came and still comes from cannabis's underground, legally disobedient wings — is more than just videos and content. It punches a fat hole right in the side of the historical record, wiping the internet clean of videos that have served as an important resource for the cannabis community. Gone, in the crackdown against cannabis creators, were channels CustomGrow420, StrainCentral, or PotTV — pages that reviewed products, offered tips on growing, and generally covered an underground cannabis industry that was for the most part foreign to mainstream media.
In 2018, while YouTube's crackdown was ramping up, a group of 21 cannabis content channels or creators released a statement slamming the platform for what it called “indiscriminate censorship.”
“Videos of cannabis news, cultivation, plants, trips, events, interviews with users, growers and experts — all censored at once. Why?” read the statement, which was republished by many cannabis media outlets. “Many of these channels have spent years reporting and educating about the cannabis plant on a platform where freedom of expression was their mission. But it is clear that censorship is still alive and YouTube is a part of it.”
“It's a huge, huge loss of culture,” Matt Mernagh, a veteran figure in the Canadian cannabis world, told The Georgia Straight, a Vancouver, British Columbia, lifestyle publication, in 2018. “You just took our history, tons and tons of cultural history by some of the country's biggest creators, and it's gone.”
YouTube's official line, in response to Weedmaps News' inquiries about account suspensions, is that the accounts being taken down were offering cannabis products for sale, or promoting sale in some way. That claim has been roundly disputed, including by those who have had their accounts deleted, and YouTube has never publicly offered up much evidence of illegal sale to substantiate it.
Much of the cannabis universe in the early 2000s existed online, and YouTube — which has billed itself as “the rawest, purest, most unfiltered portrait of how we are as a people” — was a big part of that. YouTube was, for a long time, a key place for the cannabis community, unsurprisingly since both had a grass-roots dynamic to them. But as the cannabis industry grew more commercialized, it was no longer such a good fit. Without proper archiving, it's impossible to determine with any accuracy how much content, and how much of the historical record, has been lost. Outlets such as Pot TV were among the first to endeavour to document events including Spannabis and the Karma Cup well before mainstream media picked up on them. The loss of a lot of that content means the loss of a serious portion of the cannabis community's historical record.
That broader crackdown has lent a sense of urgency to The WeedTube project, both as a cannabis project and, increasingly, a freedom of speech platform. If Richards' overtures to say that he would allow Alex Jones on the platform seem uncharacteristic, it's because trying to do what he's doing can make for strange bedfellows, even if they come about honestly — weed YouTubers such as Richards end up being involved in larger projects of free speech and creating a place for cannabis journalism outside the mainstream.
“I think that censorship is the main culprit here,” Richards said. “A lot of people fall under the category of being censored for several different reasons. And I think that that's like the center people are really in a community together and should work together.”
To Richards, that's a place that can have appeal beyond just the stoner community, and he hopes that it's not an insular place. He sees his medium, and the reach he has, as being bigger than just weed, and Richards hopes it will grow beyond being a website that, for now, is populated almost entirely by stoner content about weed. “I think The WeedTube had to start as what it had to start as, but I think that our opportunities for growth are unlimited,” he said. “The WeedTube can become a place for adult, non-porn content where we can express free opinions on more than just cannabis at some point.” I ask if that's a challenge, in an age when extremist views are more visible on the mainstream internet. “It definitely is,” he said.
Richards seems to know that this question about freedom of speech is a difficult one, and that it's one he has to answer now that he's found himself in the position of being an advocate for a freer part of the internet. (It's important to note that The WeedTube does have a content policy that forbids anything that could be construed as hate speech.) When I ask him about how he wants to approach that question, he defers. “I don't know the answer, but I'm not opposed to finding it, and I'm not opposed to working through that problem,” he said. “I don't have the answer. But I want to be the person that has the answer within the next year. That's the truth.”
Featured Illustration by Allena Braithwaite/Weedmaps