For nine years, Arnold Marcus made his living selling spice grinders on Amazon.
His company, Golden Gate Grinders, had multiple colors available, loyal customers, and an invitation to join the Amazon Accelerator program, a path to becoming an Amazon private label supplier. Marcus, 68, packed orders and took customer calls from his living room in San Francisco, proud to be involved in every aspect of the business he had built.
That changed overnight last year when Amazon removed its listings, flagging its products as a violation of the company’s policy prohibiting the sale of drugs and drug paraphernalia. For the uninitiated, a grinder can be used for spices like oregano or rosemary, or for herbs.
Marcus spent months fighting his ejection from Amazon’s online marketplace, to no avail.
“There was no indication all those years that it was a banned product,” Marcus said this summer. “One day they supported me and then one day it ended.”
Amazon says its guidelines for drugs and drug paraphernalia are long-standing and state that products cannot be primarily designed to make, prepare, or use a controlled substance. Grinders equipped with features specifically intended for marijuana-related use are not permitted on the platform.
“Third-party sellers are independent businesses and are required to comply with all applicable laws, regulations and Amazon policies when listing items for sale on our store,” a spokesperson said. “We have proactive measures in place to prevent the listing of prohibited products, including drug paraphernalia, and we continuously monitor our store, remove these products and take corrective action when we find them.”
For sellers, the language of the policy is clear but its application is ambiguous.
In some cases, Amazon has flagged products that have been sold on the platform for years. It removed some spice grinders, like the ones Marcus was selling, while allowing similar products to remain on sale. One grinder that’s still for sale states in its product description that users can “just store your weed in it until you need it.”
A search for “spice grinders” on Amazon.com yields over 8,000 results. “Cannabis spice grinders” have over 660.
“They always said there was no drug paraphernalia, but there were a lot of products that were ambiguous products that were able to sell on the platform for years and years,” he said. said Lesley Hensell, co-founder of Riverbend Consulting, which helps third parties. sellers on Amazon.
For sellers, there was a period of very little enforcement followed by a period of very strict enforcement, leaving them with lots of questions and lots of product in their garage, Hensell said. “These guys are talking about unloading stuff at flea markets.”
Riverbend Consulting started hearing more and more sellers about crusher listing issues last year when, Hensell says, Amazon changed the artificial intelligence it used to search for contraband on the site. Now, lists that have escaped the cracks are immediately flagged by the software.
The cannabis industry is inherently risky, said Chris Shreeve, co-founder and vice president of business development at PrograMetrix, a Seattle-based ad agency with a cannabis and CBD division. Shreeve is also co-owner of The Bakerée, a dispensary with two locations in Seattle.
“We have to play the hand that is dealt to us in the cannabis space,” he said. “It’s a tough hand, but we have to do it.”
Platforms like Google, Meta and Amazon “tiptoe around acceptance,” Shreeve said, hoping to follow federal rules and keep pace with evolving state-to-state guidelines. other, while finding a way to exploit the roughly $30 billion cannabis industry. Amazon campaigned for the legalization of marijuana at the federal level, and in June 2021 announced that it would no longer include marijuana in its drug testing program.
Tech giants tend to leave gray areas for products that aren’t “plant-facing,” like grow lights that can be used for many types of plants and grinders that can be used for many. types of herbs, Shreeve said.
This ambiguity has left many companies in the cannabis industry searching for workarounds, Shreeve said.
On Google, a business can share information about cannabis, but cannot sell the product or a related product. So, brands will market blog posts about the industry in hopes that potential customers will click on them and later make a purchase. Meta allows companies to market topical CBD or hemp products, but not anything that users might smoke or chew. So brands will create separate landing pages for different products, again hoping to reach new customers.
“Each platform has its own set of hurdles to jump through and red tape to navigate, but some brands circumvent these rules and regulations because of how important exposure is to the business and the product,” Shreeve said.
“I don’t blame cannabis and CBD brands for trying to navigate the ambiguous rules and regulations on some of these big platforms,” he continued. “But it has to be done assuming there is a risk.”
Marcus of Golden Gate Grinders has spent the last year tweaking his product and how it appears on the website to address Amazon’s concerns. His seller account is still active, but his products are not listed for purchase, which means he cannot generate any income.
An Amazon rep suggested their product was pulled because it had a mesh screen. He removed the screen, relisted the grinder, and watched it get flagged again. Another rep told her the product was taken down because it had tobacco-related keywords. Marcus checked his list and found no reference to tobacco. Yet another rep blamed specific semicolons and quotes.
After months of small changes, Marcus ditched his listing entirely and created a new product: a 2.5-inch silver spice grinder with no keywords, photos, or descriptions. Amazon has always flagged and removed the product.
“I’m done, there’s nothing else I will do or can do that will change what’s happening,” Marcus said. “I feel like even if I create a Golden Gate Grinders toothbrush, it will be deleted.”
Many third-party sellers outside of the cannabis industry have encountered similar issues, reporting that a confusing decision – often algorithm-driven – kicked products from Amazon’s platform with little explanation and little of appeal. Last year, Benton County-based Chukar Cherries was suddenly removed when Amazon’s fraud prevention algorithm inexplicably linked it to another seller in China who had been disabled for violating the company policy. It took 67 days to get the candies back online.
In online forums for third-party sellers, concerns specific to grinders have cropped up time and time again. One user said he “can’t figure out why others can sell” but that’s not the case. Another said it was unclear what triggered it, “but for some reason [the] the majority of registrations have been withdrawn. Another said that “Amazon’s one-size-fits-all policy is costing sellers millions.”
Before Golden Gate Grinders ran into its own issues, Marcus had been a strong Amazon supporter on these types of forums. He posted that being a third-party seller on Amazon gave him, “a burnt-out software engineer, an old man, an opportunity to recreate himself.”
Now he is considering filing for bankruptcy, had to ask his brother for a loan and has taken on credit card debt.
He had been buying inventory to prepare for when Amazon puts its products back on sale but, after nearly a year off the platform, he is no longer optimistic he can rebuild his business. He lost customer reviews that are crucial to getting his product to the top of search results and his competitors operated while he was sidelined.
“Even if someone woke up one morning and said, ‘Let it come back,’ it would be very difficult,” Marcus said. “I have to start over from the beginning. They seriously damaged and hurt my business.
At Riverbend Consulting, Hensell has started telling third-party vendors in the spice grinder business that it’s probably time to switch markets.
“At this point, I don’t think anything will work. I think what Amazon has done is working as intended,” she said. “They need to find other products to sell or sell it somewhere else. This will no longer happen on Amazon.