If you're a regular reader of SFR, the subject of medical cannabis can feel innocuous, or even passé. Fact is, however, that even though 32 states have medical cannabis, a certain aversion to it still exists among some medical professionals. Even worse is the generalized ignorance in the scientific community about how cannabinoids interact with the body.

Enter filmmakers Abby Epstein and Ricki Lake, who've spent the last six years working on a film called Weed the People. Yes, it's that Ricki Lake, the one who hosted the daytime namesake talk show in the late '90s and early aughts, and with whom independent documentary filmmaker Epstein has worked in the past.

In their latest contribution to the cinema, both women have immersed themselves in the trend wherein high-profile celebrities lend their social clout to cannabis in an effort to wash away the stigma it's carried for nearly a century. Others in this camp include Sanjay Gupta, the neurosurgeon and CNN contributor who has sung the praises of medical cannabis since 2013, and dozens of former professional-league athletes.

Lake says the idea for the film began with her late husband, a native of Farmington, New Mexico.

Back in 2012, Lake’s husband “was on a mission to relieve chronic pain and emotional ailments, and researching the medicine himself,” Lake tells SFR. After stumbling across the story of a young girl on a similar mission, Lake says Epstein approached her about the possibility of turning the idea into a film.
The family of Sophie Ryan, a baby diagnosed with optic pathway glioma, gathers around cannabis plants to pray.
The family of Sophie Ryan, a baby diagnosed with optic pathway glioma, gathers around cannabis plants to pray. | Courtesy Weed the People

Weed the People follows the journeys of five families, most of whom are unfamiliar with medical cannabis, as they seek treatment for their children suffering from various kinds of cancers. Josh and Tracey Ryan, for example, were adamantly opposed to using any form of cannabis for their baby Sophie, who suffered from optic pathway glioma, until they found a pro-cannabis community of parents on Facebook and decided to give it a try.

The struggles of some children featured in the film are difficult to watch. We see Chico, for example, a preteen with a chest full of tumors, doped up on methadone and sobbing in pain during chemotherapy. Another boy, AJ, had already had so many surgeries as a child that the fingers on one of his hands had semi-permanently curled inward by the time he was 17, so that he had to modify a computer game for accessibility.

In the end, both kids end up cancer-free.

Chico has one of the fastest recovery rates of the kids in the film. After less than a year on a cannabis regimen closely monitored by his mother and a self-described cannabis pediatric physician, all his tumors are gone. His hair has grown back and the 14-year-old is nearly unrecognizable as a camera follows him to class on his first day of school (where, ironically enough, a teacher advises students not to wear any clothing that features cannabis leaves).

The trajectories of other children featured in the film, almost all of whom live in California, aren't all happy. Filmmakers follow the tragic story of another AJ, the only African-American child in the film, as his parents relocate to California from Chicago for easier access to cannabis. The boy's diagnosis is diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, a highly fatal form of cancer in the brain stem, and by the film's end the family has buried him.

Epstein explains that filmmakers made "a gamble" with this kind of film, in which any of the children could have died—but the fact that the only person to die was black felt like a missed opportunity to delve into how non-white people are systemically underserved by the medical profession, with or without cannabis.

Baby Sophie also has an uneven experience with cannabis, with her tumor actually growing after initial trials with cannabis. The parents are tearfully forced to subject Sophie to chemo, which she responds to well, and a doctor later tells them her rapid improvement may well be due to the combination of chemotherapy and cannabis oil.

Then, an unexpected twist: Tracey takes what she's learned from the amateur cannabis specialist who'd been helping Sophie, and starts her own line of cannabis oil. The filmmakers captured the transition from desperate parent to cannagrifter exceptionally well, adding texture usually missing from a genre stuffed with warm-and-fuzzy affect.

In between filming the medical battles of the five families, the filmmakers also travel to Israel and Spain to speak with top medical experts, where there are no federal limits on research into cannabis—unlike in the US. This is ultimately the film's greatest contribution: Pulling together the latest research from some of the sharpest minds on the subject, telling it through a premium lens on an issue whose time has come. The film debuts on Netflix next April 20.

“If we have a natural substance that might potentially be a serious tool against cancer,” Epstein tells SFR, “how in the world could it be taken away and suppressed from people?”

Weed the People Screening and Panel
7 pm Wednesday Dec. 5. $15. The Screen, 1600 St. Michael's Drive, 428-0209. Guests to include Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, Emily Kaltenbach and the filmmakers.