“I smell weed!” Ricki Lake walks onto the back patio of a South Austin home and laughs. It’s Monday night and the backyard is filled with people visiting from California and New York for the SXSW festival in Austin this week. They’re here to celebrate Lake’s new film, which advocates for medical marijuana to help treat pediatric cancer. Visitors mill about discussing indica vs. sativa, a new cannabis spa, orgasmic meditation and cryptocurrency. (From Austin, Lake is going to a cryptocurrency conference in Puerto Rico, dubbed “Puerto Crypto.”) Some attendees brought cannabis from California, because it’s illegal in Texas. I’m here because a press release inviting me to “Get High with Ricki Lake!!” landed in my inbox a few days earlier, and curiosity got the better of me.
Lake passes around a vaporizer. “Want to try it?” she offers. “It’s very light, you won’t feel anything.” I pass. An actress and ’90s talk-show star, Lake is best known these days for her home-birth documentary from 2008, The Business of Being Born, which was wildly popular but widely criticized by the medical community. She admits she had second thoughts about a weed party like this to market a serious film that she wants “to be received with the intention we put into it.” But she’s having a great time. Her trepidation was “foolish,” she says. “I feel like I’m living so authentically, I’m really as grounded as I’ve ever been, I’m so in touch with the work I do. And I think [the film] speaks for itself.”
Primarily set in California, Weed the People premiered this week in Austin, where none of the kids featured would have been able to legally get their cannabis treatment. Just as this promotional pot-smoking party exists within the bizarre bubble of SXSW in bright-blue Austin, the film exists primarily within the California bubble, where medical marijuana has been legal for two decades.
Shot over six years, Weed the People follows five families who treated their young kids suffering from cancer with cannabis in addition to chemotherapy. Lake, the executive producer, and director Abby Epstein hope their work will help change the stigma around cannabis and open doors for it to be studied and used more widely to treat cancer patients and those with epilepsy, PTSD and other ailments.
Studies have found that cannabis can be effective at controlling nausea that results from chemotherapy, as well as easing pain or loss of appetite. But while the use of cannabis to control symptoms is well established, the film suggests that it also has the potential to cure cancer, a dubious and mostly untested claim. While their kids’ doctors are more restrained, several parents in the documentary are convinced it’s cannabis, not chemo, that caused their kids’ tumors to shrink. Early studies suggest cannabis could help slow cancer growth, but the research is limited, and the American Cancer Society warns that “relying on marijuana alone as treatment while avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.” Because the federal government categorizes marijuana in the most dangerous class of drugs, known as Schedule I, research is extremely limited and much of what we know about its effects is anecdotal.
Anecdotes do change minds. In 2015, Texas passed its restrictive Compassionate Use Act, which allows certain doctors to prescribe cannabis with low-dose THC only for patients with severe epilepsy, because GOP state Representative Stephanie Klick, who authored the bill, learned a constituent’s seizures decreased with cannabis. Representative Jason Isaac, who became the Republican voice for medical marijuana in the Legislature last session, was convinced to take on the issue by a couple of mothers in his district who similarly treated their kids.
For Lake, it was a young girl who stayed with her and her late ex-husband, Christian Evans, for several weeks who inspired her to take up the cause. Evans, who died last year, had been researching cannabis and thought it might help treat the girl’s cancer. Weed the People is his legacy, Lake said.
This is what the filmmakers hope to accomplish on a broader scale. Pot stigmatization holds up especially poorly when it comes to kids with cancer, and their stories carry a major gut punch. It’s impossible not to be moved by an image of baby Sophie, head bandaged after brain surgery, sitting behind her first birthday cake. Or by Chico, 14 years old, who wears a “Fuck Cancer” shirt and wrote a letter to President Obama, asking him to legalize cannabis oil for kids “so they don’t have to go through what I went through.”
The movie makes a compelling case that medical marijuana at the very least deserves further scrutiny and investment. Currently it’s unregulated and expensive. Cannabis isn’t covered by insurance and can cost thousands of dollars per month, more than rent, says one mother. There’s little information on effective dosing; parents are left to experiment on their kids during their most desperate moments. “We’re in uncharted waters. We’re lab rats,” says Sophie’s mom. Sophie’s parents initially tried to treat her brain tumor with cannabis alone to avoid the harmful effects of chemo, but when her tumor had grown by the next check-up, they started her on chemo, too. Epstein told me that was difficult to see — she had expected the tumor to shrink.
At one point, Chico’s mom learns that a batch of cannabis oil she got him is largely alcohol. “I just find it absolutely staggering to accept that in this day and age, with all the billions spent on cancer research, the medicine we’re relying on was made in somebody’s kitchen,” she says from her son’s hospital room. “Luckily we were in a legal state. It would have caused way, way more stress to try to do this illegally and behind the backs of the doctors.”
But the film brushes past these other families. Aside from one that travels from Chicago to get cannabis for their son, they all live in California. Weed the People doesn’t explore this family’s particular challenges, or the not-uncommon situation of becoming medical refugees for cannabis. Missing are the kinds of families I’ve covered here in Texas: the dad who received a letter from Child Protective Services accusing him of child abuse for illegally giving his autistic daughter cannabis, the only thing that stops her from hitting herself. The mom whose daughter suffers from constant epileptic seizures without cannabis, and is regularly knocked out by her plethora of prescription drugs.
I wish the film showed more of the tension between these kinds of families and the lawmakers blocking their kids from accessing their preferred treatment. The filmmakers’ optimism is palpable, but they’re starting from a baseline that’s already far more accepting of medical marijuana than much of the United States. If these stories will change minds, I’d have liked to see that happen on screen. “This film has the potential to change lives,” Lake said. “It sure beats doing a talk show, guys.”