'Weed the People': Film Review

A heartstring-pulling advocacy doc.
10/26/2018

Abby Epstein's doc about cannabis-related legal battles centers on its potential in treating cancer.

For those of us with no direct involvement in the debate, it may seem that America is making plenty of progress, albeit in a herky-jerky way, toward more sensible laws regarding cannabis. If anything, it is astonishing (as with gay marriage) how quickly public sentiment has shifted, with once-unthinkable laws now seemingly inevitable.

In the unfortunately titled Weed the People, documentarian Abby Epstein finds a community of people for whom even this pace is unacceptable, since changes to the law might be a matter of life and death: parents convinced that cannabis might cure their children's cancer, who not only need access to the drug for personal medical use but demand that the government allow researchers to test its therapeutic applications. Though the film seems pretty thoroughly convinced on this topic, its main argument should ring true even for skeptics: We won't know the answers if, thanks to the drug's Schedule I status in the U.S., scientists remain unable to study its effects.

Following a time-honored strategy, the doc relies heavily on subjects who would never have sought access to pot outside a medical context. For example: the parents of Sophie Ryan, a baby girl with a brain tumor, who dismissed talk of medical marijuana outright until a family friend convinced them to try it. All they knew was that any alternative to giving an infant chemotherapy was worth exploring.

The Ryans make contact with Mara Gordon, who, after enduring her own health scare, became an advocate for medical cannabis. "We're dosing specialists," Gordon says of herself and her husband, who view themselves as quality-minded providers in a world of get-rich-quick quacks. Gordon acknowledges she has no medical training, but insists that families who work with her use the oils and dosages she prescribes, arguing that she's collecting data to improve outcomes for everyone she works with. (Scenes of conflict at the doc's end, not very well developed, will show how Gordon's do-gooder self-image clashes with a burgeoning community of "cannapreneurs.")

Epstein introduces several other families using cannabis to treat cancer, including one from Chicago who had to establish California residency in order to explore the therapy legally. And while she very prudently starts the film with a physician's warning that "the plural of 'anecdote' is not 'evidence,'" she finds enough near-miracles to persuade viewers there's something here.

The doc provides a quick history lesson, also seen in some other pro-pot films, about America's sketchy history with the drug: It was a widely accepted remedy up until the early 20th century, when anti-cannabis sentiment was suspiciously linked to racism and anti-immigrant fervor. Asked about its legitimacy as a medical therapy (aside from its accepted use in pain management), an oncologist says the plant has "been a medicine for 3,000 years" before being shunned for a mere 70: "I think it's a medicine."

The families here clearly agree. We get plenty of sweet-kid footage of children playing, shown in stark contrast with scenes in which the patients were all but comatose before taking cannabis extracts. Conventional doctors report what stunning progress some of the kids are making on weed tinctures. In some tough sequences, we see that the news is not always so good. But even when facing setbacks, families that have been given reason for hope persist in their enthusiasm for the drug, even forming their own business and activist groups.

And that may be the most persuasive element in the film's argument for removing barriers to testing of cannabis' medical potential: Arguments about the drug's legality simply can't be conducted while one side relies on racism (however buried in the past, or not) and fearmongering and the other is informed so heavily by the hopes of desperate parents. (The voice of Big Pharma is another matter entirely.) The rigors of the scientific method are called for — even if the answers science eventually provides aren't the ones weed proponents want to hear.

Production companies: Mangurama, Bobb Films
Director: Abby Epstein
Producers: Giancarlo Canavesio, Sol Tryon
Executive producer: Ricki Lake
Directors of photography: Paulo Netto, Richard Pearce, Jenna Rosher
Editors: Kristen Nutile, Adam Christopher Seward
Composer: Simone Giuliani

93 minutes