By Kim ShiffmanMar 18, 2019
Photo: Weed the People
Depending on how old you are, you might know Ricki Lake from her role as Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray (1988), as the host of the daytime talk show Ricki Lake (1993-2004), or maybe as a Dancing With the Stars celeb contestant (2011). But along with film director Abby Epstein, she's also a documentary film maker, having produced The Business of Being Born, an eye-opening look at the birth industry, as well as Breastmilk, about the obstacles moms face when trying to breastfeed their babies.
Lake and Epstein's latest doc is Weed the People, which follows five kids with paediatric cancer as their families experiment with cannabis oil (along with traditional cancer therapies) as a treatment or even cure. Today's Parent recently spoke to the pair about what they hoped to achieve with the movie.
In the past you've made films centred around women’s health. What got you interested in kids and cannabis?
RICKI: The credit and blame goes to my beloved husband, Christian Evans, who passed away. He was interested in cannabis for his own healing. He had physical chronic pain and emotional stuff and he found cannabis was a relief for him. At the same time, his grandfather was dying of bone cancer so he was looking to help him, and then there was also a sick little girl who came into our lives via Dancing With The Stars. So it was a trifecta of factors that made us want information about CBD and what it could do, especially for sick kids. That was the birth of Weed the People.
Which paediatric conditions are parents using cannabis for?
ABBY: I think the question is what it is not being used for. Definitely epilepsy, and also paediatric cancer—that's what we covered in the film because it’s a prime example of a desperate situation. There are other paediatric uses as well, like ADHD and anxiety, and others—there’s definitely an expansion of uses. I’ve given my own son CBD. He goes to a school for kids with learning differences and many of the kids there are on CBD because parents are looking for alternatives to Ritalin and Adderall.
One of the scientists in the film started treating an autistic 17-year-old who’d never spoken. He started him on the oils. One day he comes downstairs and his mom’s like, “What do you want for breakfast?” and he says, “I would like some eggs.” He’d never said a word for 17 years. And this is coming from the scientist who’s doing a trial. He was blown away. I’ve seen kids during the filming I’ve done stop self-injurious behaviours and regain language.
It’s increasingly popular, and yet still not considered at all legitimate by most people and even most doctors.
ABBY: It’s still functioning as a naturopathic supplement, not a medicine, because we don’t have the knowledge, the doctors and the trials. Doctors don’t feel comfortable prescribing it because it’s not coming out of the pharmaceutical systems. Clinical trials cost millions and millions of dollars, and then you have to have something you can patent so you can make money. That’s our pharmaceutical system: it’s completely profit driven. CBD has the potential to shake up the entire pharmaceutical industry—it’s very threatening, so a lot of the information is suppressed. The pharmaceutical companies are deliberately making it hard. They work with the government to make it hard.
RICKI: The problem is that it’s considered a Schedule 1 drug in the US so they aren’t able to do the necessary research. It’s exciting that in Canada, that they are able to do the research now because cannabis is legal both medicinally and recreationally.
Is there a scene in the film that stands out for you?
ABBY: One of the most amazing scenes is when one of the kids brought home cannabis extract. He'd been taking eight Oxycontin a day. His parents were like, “This is never going to work.” Within 48 hours, he was off all the pain medicine. They couldn’t believe it.
Kids who are battling cancer are being given opiates and narcotics to manage pain, and they’re becoming physically addicted. It makes no sense—your body is trying to battle cancer and you’re taking pain killers that are shutting down your organs.
Did you worry about making CBD seem like a miracle cure, or giving parents false hope when all else has failed?
RICKI: I think the film gives them hope, not false hope. Of course everyone’s cannabinoid system is unique so everyone’s going to react differently to it. But when so many families are desperate to find relief from their child’s suffering, this should be the go-to, to try first, I think. I’m not a doctor, I’m not an expert, and I’m not the parent of a sick child, but there’s enough anecdotal evidence on these kids that this really should be the go-to.
ABBY: The film isn’t trying to prove a case. It’s more trying to show why this needs more research. It didn’t work for all the kids in the film, but in the majority of the families we studied, the results are so compelling. And there’s no toxicity to the substance, you can’t overdose on it.
Are you hoping your film will move the needle as far as advancing society’s understanding about paediatric medicinal cannabis, and advocating for more research?
RICKI: It already has moved the needle in certain ways. For example, we brought it to Oklahoma for a screening two weeks before a referendum on medicinal cannabis, and they credit our film in helping to pass it in what’s arguably one of the most conservative states in the country. The movie is a powerful tool to educate the masses about how this plant has been vilified and that we need to look into it.
How close are we to a time when CBD has been properly studied and is considered a legitimate medicine?
RICKI: It should already be an herb that grows in your garden, you have access to it, and you can use it for whatever you want, recreational or medicinal. I don’t know how far along we are, but I know we’re getting closer—we started working on Weed the People in 2012 and today there are so many more states that are legal medicinally, and cannabis is legal in Canada. But a lot more needs to happen as well.
Weed the People can be viewed via iTunes and Amazon. Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein will be speaking at O’Cannabiz, the cannabis conference and expo taking place April 27-29, 2019 in Toronto. This interview has been edited and condensed.