What Instagram did for brunch, MassRoots hopes to do for weed

Cannabis or "weed" is, in practical terms, going mainstream. It's no longer exclusively sold from basements and back alleys; in 23 states and Washington D.C., it's sold from licensed and bonded shops. The cannabis movement has done a lot of growing up over the past couple of years as its public acceptance has skyrocketed across the US. Cannabis itself has gone from a black market "gateway" drug that funded the atrocities of Mexican cartels to a potential super-medicine drawing the attention of Wall Street's most powerful investors and all seemingly overnight.

But is cannabis culture really ready for this sea change of support? Can users get over their self-perpetuating stereotypes and celebrate this pastime as coffee and cocktail enthusiasts do -- by spamming their Instagram followers with inane pictures of what they're about to consume? If the MassRoots photo-sharing app, billed as the "Instagram for weed," is any indication, probably not.

I should first point out that I grew up in San Francisco. I smoked cannabis regularly for years before taking a drag of my first cigarette or even a sip of beer. Cannabis use wasn't just normalized when I was a teenager; it was blasé. Everybody from my bus drivers to my public school teachers -- heck, even my old scoutmaster -- got lit on the regular and with surprisingly little pomp or circumstance. As such, much of the "cannabis pop culture" that many people relish has always come across as comical and amateurish to me. I mean, who actually wants to be that stereotypical, "Whoa look at my hands, THEY'RE HUGE!" kind of stoner? Who wants to be that one asshole who reeks of patchouli oil and can't stop talking about how hash rips cured his gout?

As cannabis transitions from the counterculture to the mainstream, people are beginning to treat it like our other two favorite low-level intoxicants: coffee and beer. This includes not only obsessing over the origins, production methods, flavor and preparation of the product itself, but also over the ever-more intricate apparatus needed to consume them. Just as freeze-dried Folgers in a percolator coffee maker has been supplanted by Keurig K-cups, apples and proto-pipes have been replaced by dab sticks and vapor pens. And just as craft beer makers obsess over the quality over every hop, so too do stoners over the appearance and potency of their favorite strains.

As cannabis transitions from the counterculture to the mainstream, people are beginning to treat it like coffee and beer.

And just as people obsessively snap pictures of what they're eating and drinking to post to Instagram, so too do many stoners with what they're smoking. But that's where the trouble starts. While getting shitfaced at 10 AM on a Sunday (aka "brunch") is a perfectly acceptable use of Instagram, the site's Community Guidelines specifically prohibit users from posting pictures of cannabis and other intoxicants. It specifically states, "Promoting recreational drug use is also not allowed." There's also the issue of police trawling through the app looking for people to arrest and the fact that cannabis is (for the time being) still a federally prohibited Schedule I drug.

And that's where the MassRoots app comes in. The so-called Instagram of weed reportedly offers its users the ability to share their cannabis-related photos freely, safely and without any fear of violating their terms of service or running afoul of state medical marijuana laws. This is supposedly because the app is only made available to users in states that allow medical marijuana. During the initial setup, however, the only "verification" the iOS and Android app performed was to have me pick a state out of a list of 23 where medical cannabis is legal. I wasn't required to disclose my patient ID number nor upload a scan of my doctor's recommendation -- nothing. It'd be no harder for a person from a non-MMJ state to game the app's security than it would be for a 12-year-old to figure out how to subtract 18 from the current calendar year to get into a porn site. What's more, even picking an MMJ state from this app's list still isn't going to protect you from either the DEA or overzealous local law enforcement.

Security concerns aside, the app itself functions uncannily like Instagram. Users can upload and share photos, like and comment on the pictures of others and follow other users' streams. It's really just like Instagram except the pictures are of glassware (e.g., hash pipes and bongs), nuggets of cannabis and flowering grow houses instead of fancy cocktails, tapas and your cat. Rap group Cypress Hill's B Real is a member of the site and users like Valleyrec420, NativeRoots and MassGlass all offer professional-looking photo streams as well. Surprisingly, marquee cannabis groups like Stoned Society, High Times and NORML were nowhere to be found.

It's just like Instagram except the pictures are of glassware, nuggets of cannabis and flowering grow houses instead of fancy cocktails, tapas and your cat.

I was also amazed by the lack of dispensaries using the app. It seems the perfect platform to connect with potential customers and yet I couldn't find a single shop in San Francisco that used MassRoots. There are also no fewer than 48 people impersonating Snoop Dogg on the site so good luck trying to follow him. In short, with a significant portion of the content on this app being recycled from other sources -- be it Tumblr or Reddit's r/trees -- it's really difficult to know who's worth following.

Unfortunately, the majority of MassRoots' users are not gifted photographers (being stoned clearly doesn't help matters either) so images are not typically of the best quality... or even in focus all that often. That's not to say you can't find great accounts; you're just going to need to wade through a significant number of people snapping overexposed shots of pipes, Bic lighters and their hazy college dorm rooms to find the good stuff.

MassRoots, despite clearly being modeled after Instagram, does lack some of the more popular apps functionality. Direct messages, for example, are nonexistent. But for what MassRoots lacks in a large user base, it makes up for in user interaction. I posted a single picture to MassRoots and have already garnered more followers than I have on Instagram. Plus, looking through the feeds you see that virtually every single comment on posts is positive and supportive.

Overall, trawling through MassRoots is a lot like walking through a Cannabis Cup: equal parts enthusiasm and self-parody. It's great to see people publicly embracing an American pastime that, 20 years ago, would have landed you in federal prison. But, seriously, how many goddamn times do I need to read the phrase, "Looooool I'm high AF" in a three-minute period? How many macro shots of generic nugs and sheets of wax do I have to see before they all blend into an eye-glazing morass? Turns out, about 45 of them.

Maybe my disappointment with MassRoots isn't with the site itself or its largely millennial user base. Maybe the problem is me. It might be because I've been so inundated with the idea that cannabis is equivalent to alcohol that photos of people wearing hemp cowboy hats and fan-leaf leis makes me cringe. Or maybe it's just as Lethal Weapon's Roger Murtaugh once said: "I'm getting too old for this shit."

[Image credits: Blaine Harrington III / Alamy (top image); MassRoots (screenshots)]