Children are often placed at the centre of the moral outrage surrounding cannabis and arguments opposing legalization, but that can work both ways says Abby Epstein, the director of 'Weed the People' - a new documentary film following several families pursuing cannabis treatments for children with cancer.
"When you’re talking about children's health, things become depoliticized. The narrative isn’t about them just wanting to be high and pretending it is medicine," she told Civilized. "I truly think it was the story of the epileptic children responding so well to CBD that really pushed the issue forward in the US."
The decision to focus on cancer was a calculated one, intended to bring a new, little-discussed dimension to the narrative of pediatric medical cannabis.
"We felt like the epileptic story had really been told a lot, and people were not talking about the other conditions like cancer or autism, a lot of the other areas where cannabis has been just remarkably effective."
Have you gotten any sense of stigma against these kids since the movie has been made? Has there been any opposition?
The stigma is always there. Even just in silly things. For instance, we had all the Facebook ads pulled for the movie, even though they didn't mention cannabis. They didn't use any of the language that you're not supposed to use. It was just because the page of the movie was called 'Weed the People.'
Then, recently we were working with another kind of distribution platform, and they came back to us very apologetic, and they said, "You know we love the film and we want to work with you, but we're a publicly funded company, and so we basically can't sell tickets." It was so ridiculous.
We saw it while making the film over and over again with every hospital. We'd just get blocked out. What would happen is we'd call Kaiser or Children's Hospital LA and say "we're making this film following these kids with cancer and they're getting treated at your hospital." And the doctors would be totally on board. We’d film one time, then, as soon as they catch on that there's some cannabis aspect to it, they block us.
It’s terrible because the doctors are not even allowed to interview. Like there were so many doctors in the movie that were just blown away by what was happening with the patients. Ninety percent of them were completely handcuffed by the hospital and not allowed to talk to us.
Who do you think is doing the handcuffing? Is it mostly the federal government? Big Pharma? Do you think it's a mix of the two?
These hospitals are terrified of losing federal funding. But, for instance, University of California, Los Angeles gave us open access. They were amazing about filming. And Chico - one of the little boys in the film - you see his oncologist in the last scene saying, "Wow, I've learned a lot from you."
UCLA is doing incredible research, and so they have really leaned in to working with cannabis, doing clinical trials. But for the most part I would say, there's this weird terror with doctors and hospitals. Even the doctors that prescribe it say they make it so hard for patients, and it can be really hard for the doctors to get licensed. I think that's a lot of Big Pharma pushback. Also, to me, Big Pharma and the federal government are sort of one entity.
On that note, we had a little short piece commissioned by The Guardian. And when we delivered it, they wouldn't air the piece. We asked why and they were like, "Oh, because you know our science department and this editor looked at it, and everybody is so concerned that if we air this then every kid with cancer is going be misled," as if we were somehow giving out false information. And I was like wow, of all the things that The Guardian will run…
There was a lot of resistance. We see it with cable TV, too. At the end of the day, it’s about who's footing the bill. So, I think that we see this resistance and pushback to it all the time. Even with cancer groups. We've gone to children's cancer charities and tried to do screenings of the film, and they're nervous. They were like "Oh no, we're looking at immunotherapy. We're looking at stem cell treatment," so then I'm like, "Yeah, but if you're really concerned about children with cancer, why aren't you looking at everything?"
Did any of that nervousness translate to the people featured in the film? Were any of the subjects worried about legal ramifications of being in the movie?
We were very careful to use families who were all under the care of Western physicians who were completely onboard. There are a lot of stories that I found while researching for this film of families that were really going rogue, like turning down chemo entirely. We didn't want to be in a position to put anybody at risk.
So that's why a lot of the families are in California. A lot of the families are legal. It was very tricky because we have one family in the film, the Petersons, who had come from Chicago, and they had to jump through these hoops and establish a residency to be able to get medicine.
I always get worried, even in the beginning when we were making the movie, a local KTLA channel did a short news piece on one of our subjects. I was nervous because I've heard of a lot of kids using medical cannabis and the hospital reporting them to children’s services. I had told Tracy, Sophie's mother, in the very beginning, "Look, when they do that piece, just say she's on holistic medicine. Just say you're doing a lot of herbal." You really don’t know. I think there's always that risk.
I found the position of Mara Gordon of Aunt Zelda’s in the film fascinating. I mean obviously she does a lot of good. But, considering she's not a medical professional, there's not much in terms of enforced regulation surrounding her practice. Do you think groups like hers could potentially impede the legal progress of medical cannabis, and do you think someone like her would have a place post-legalized regulated marijuana?
When we met Mara and started filming with her, she was making oil with her husband Stuart in her kitchen. She’s almost on a personal mercy mission, you know? Except, because she is trained as a process engineer and she's got a scientific training and mind, she had this vision of data. I think that she's someone who's really evolved in a sense that her product did so much good and had such a good reputation and her systems were so good. Now, Aunt Zelda is a publicly traded company, and a much more of a full operation. Still, it comes from such a heartfelt place. I mean any patient that I ever referred to her - she'd spend like an hour on the phone with them. I think there is a place for her because I think she's grown at a certain rate.
I don’t think there is much of a place for a lot of the "mom and pop" shops, however. With the regulations in California, a lot of them getting wiped out. And it's a shame, you know? Because I think a lot of those collectives really made very tailored medicine. They could make like a very specific batch just for a certain patient who needed a little more of this or a little more of that. And now, everybody has to sell through a dispensary and now that it's all regulated, and they have to pay these astronomical licensing fees, a lot of them are going out of business or going into CBD only. It really is a shame.
Do you see bigger changes happening quicker in Canada or the US? Canada is obviously legalizing recreational cannabis, but the United States has been much looser in its medical regulations.
I think Canada will probably have much better efficacy and access for people to get treatment and advice and medicine. But I don't know how much innovation there will be. I think a lot of that is still happening in Israel. I think the US, even though it's still this crazy state-to-state thing, it will be much looser in terms of regulation.
Given marijuana's recreational properties, What does it take for kids to be considered eligible for medical cannabis? Do the kids need to be dying? Suffering? Or could it be something like ADD or similar impediment? Do you have a view on that?
I think it depends. I think it's like anything that you give a child - obviously you have to weigh the risks versus the benefits. All of this, as we know, is relatively untested. The only thing we do know is we do know that cannabis is completely non-toxic. So, we know that you're not going to have organ damage.
Still, we don't know the long term effects of giving high amounts of THC to a developing brain, and there is some research that shows that giving high amounts of THC for a developing brain is not great. But if your kid has cancer, or if your kid is suffering from life-threatening epilepsy, then of course you're going to say, well, I'll take the risk of the THC.
The drugs that they do give children now are so toxic, and I've now met so many parents with sick children who have open prescriptions for Oxycontin and other opioids. Those drugs have disastrous side effects. Putting everything on a harm scale: if you're talking about these like powerful anti-seizure medications or a few milligrams of THC, I think most parents would probably lean toward the natural choice, so long as it’s effective.
I started giving my son cannabis oils for his ADD when he was about 10. I felt like it's a high CBD oil, so he's not getting the THC. He's not having any visible side effects from it. So, on a certain level, you can look at it as a complimentary herbal therapy, like acupuncture. It could help. But, if it doesn't help, it's certainly not going to hurt him.
'Weed The People' officially premiered on October 26th. Check here to see if it is screening at a venue near you.