Documentary Review: “Weed the People” tries to make the case for medical marijuana

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There’s this odd, jarring anti-marijuana ad campaign running in the previews in cinemas where I live in Florida — “Marijuana: Know the Truth.” It’s a mother using the “gateway drug” argument against legalizing pot. I can’t locate who is paying for the campaign, but Big Pharma has been linked to such efforts in the past.

Because if one thing is made clear in the advocacy documentary “Weed the People,” it’s that Big Pharma is the enemy, because whatever race politics had to do with the demonization of marijuana over the past 80 years, drug companies fret over losing control of pain killing, appetite restoring and cancer battling to cheap, legally available weed. Fighting legalization, this film suggests, is putting blood on drug companies’ hands.

The film is an emphatic re-branding of the the “legalize pot” movement, putting suffering children’s faces front and center in the fight, with weeping parents and increasingly defiant doctors, most of them in states where medical and/or recreational marijuana is already legal, making case on the kids’ behalf.

“When your kid gets cancer, the rule book goes out the window.blameless children

We see babies in hospitals, mothers praying at bedsides, blameless children suffering from fatal cancers of most every description. They’re grasping at slim but not off-the-wall hopes. Whatever medical science says about pot’s chemical ability to bolster appetites and keep chemo-patients strong enough for the fight, there are other corners of research — entirely too anecdotal at this point — that suggest marijuana kills cancer cells and shrinks tumors.

Director Abby Epstein’s movie (she did the birth control doc “Sweetening the Pill”), produced by Ricki Lake, responsibly gets at the counter-arguments parked in advocacy’s path in the opening moments. There have been studies that showed marijuana-derived  cannabinoids killing cancer cells in test tubes, but human trials are another matter.

San Francisco oncologist Dr. Donald Abrams

“Is cannabis an anti-cancer agent?” San Francisco oncologist Dr. Donald Abrams asks, rhetorically. Perhaps. But there are suggestions, cases like several of the ones shown in the movie which argue that the government should be allowing and even underwriting testing. Still, Dr. Abrams adds, “The plural of anecdote is not ‘evidence.'”

We meet desperate families, some of whom will see success, others failure, as they pursue “alternative medicine” treatments for their dying children.

Bonni Goldstein, a pediatrician and medical marijuana treatment specialist speaking at a “Patients Out of Time/Medicalcannabis.com event, says that “To a family that’s suffering, it feels like a miracle. It’s really just science. It’s not fairy dust and it’s not voodoo. There are chemicals in the plant that work just like any other drug.”

Master herbalist (herbs, people, not “herb”) Angela Harris thumbs through 200 year-old manuals about how cannabis could be used to treat this or that malady in earlier eras, and makes the point that marijuana in assorted forms was “part of the pharmacopia well into the 20th century.”

No less august body that the American Medical Association, the AMA, recommended that pot not be banned back in the 1930s because of what they knew if could help with, and perhaps what they suspected were its other benefits. Xenophobia and anti-Mexican racism ruled the day and it was parked on a banned substance schedule likening it to heroin, where it remains to this day.

We see baby Sophie and her parents endure the roller-coaster of emotions, treating their child with conventional medicine (scans, chemo) and then cannabis oil, trying to battle the tumors ravaging her brain.

Little Cecilia givesher dolly a version of “the black medicine” (high dose cannabis oil) that she is being treated with for her lung cancer.

The movie is full of desperate, hopeful, upbeat parents, looking for a “miracle,” hoping for medical backing for those hopes, and finding it. Many look straight into the camera and say what doctors are often (but not always) reluctant to attribute to one treatment, that their child’s shrinking tumors “We believe was definitely due to the cannabis.”

Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance complains about a reactionary Drug Enforcement Agency that blocks research, research that instead is happening in places like Spain and Israel, where the breakthroughs in how cannabis works on the body, on cancer cells, are coming from.

Parents complain about the under-researched, unregulated and unsupported by officialdom nature of cannabis treatments, leaving Angela, a Texas mother whose son Chris is knocking on death’s door when we meet them, “in the dark.”

Quacks and short-cut taking jerks are selling oils using rubbing alcohol as their solvent, doing more harm than good

A Chicago mom works the angles to establish California residency so she can get her child the treatment that might be his last hope.

And then there’s Mara Gordon, a California cannabis cooker who brings to mind every West Coast flake you’ve ever seen complain about child vaccines or extol the virtues of crystals.

“I don’t have medical training.  I have something that I think is more important — experience,” is not confidence inspiring.

But “Weed the People” watches Gordon in action, a process engineer turned Aunt Zelda’s founder, concocting oils, meeting parents, taking phone calls.

The parents are incredulous because the lack of research and Drug Agency and drug company resistance, the “stigma” attached to wood, means “the medicine we were relying on is made in somebody’s kitchen.”

“We’re lab rats!”

But Gordon, making few promises but vowing to launch a carefully monitored and documented treatment with doses that start small and grow, if necessary, with hospitals running the tests to see if tumors shrink, comes off as a genuine folk hero.

“Take care,” she says to one caller. “Help’s on the way.”

She leaves parents to do her evangelizing for her.

“I’m going to tell you what it did for my son…”

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“Weed the People” works best in recounting history, covering the stigma long-attached to a plant that can grow most anywhere, is cheap to process and got its reputation, as Jimmy Buffett sang, “when only jazz musicians, were smoking marijuana.”

And it brilliantly rebrands a fight that is very blue state/red state hit-or-miss in a deeply divided America. That unkempt college kid standing outside your polling place, pleading for legalized marijuana, isn’t going to convince many.

That mother holding her cancer-ridden baby, comforting her dying teen or weeping with joy at the life “the demon weed” gave her child will.

Put her in ads that run with the coming attractions before movies, and this argument’s over.

3stars2
MPAA Rating: unrated, drug use subject matter

Credits:Directed by Abby Epstein. A Mangurama release.

Running time: 1:37

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