Everybody wants to get in on the “green rush” and grab their share of the river of cash flowing into cannabis. And as a long-time connoisseur, I’m excited that recreational use laws are rolling out all across the country.
But as attitudes around our favorite plant continue to change -- especially here in LA, where billboards for companies like MedMen, Eaze and Ignite aim to entice everyone from sophisticated stoners, to stressed out moms and frat boys -- I do wonder what’s happening to the “compassionate caregiving” side of the business.
Is the rush to make weed legal for fun, impacting the medical marijuana market?
Ask medicinal advocates like Weed the People director Abby Epstein and you’ll get a resounding yes. And not exactly in a good way.
Weed the People is a marijuana documentary backed by talk show icon Ricki Lake (yup … that Ricki Lake, for my older millennials and Gen-Xers), that tells the stories of families for whom cannabis-based remedies have become the last resort in terms of healing (or at least comforting) their very sick children. Or they could be, if said remedies weren’t caught up in the middle of America’s gnarly anti-drug policies.
The doc has just launched for digital download on Amazon & iTunes, so we caught up with Epstein to get her take on how the medicinal landscape has changed amidst the recreational wave.
What's your perspective on how the state of legalization has changed in the span of time since you started working on Weed the People?
The climate has changed so much since we started pre-production in 2012 that it's hardly recognizable. Back then, the legalization movement was driven by activists and patients, but now it seems that business and profits are the forces behind changing the laws -- and you can see this shift within some of the character's arcs in the film.
Are there any key developments or laws (i.e. The Farm Bill?) that you're optimistic about?
I'm optimistic about legalization, but I'm fearful that important elements like social justice and medical research will get lost amidst the green rush to profit from recreational cannabis.
In California, the regulations and taxation that came in with legalization have crushed the small, compassionate companies who were making medicine for patients. Everyone in our film has been affected by this -- the medicine providers can no longer manufacture, and the doctors are handcuffed from giving dosing advise or consulting with patients out of state.
Yeah … the “caregiving” aspect. It’s almost like the message around medicinal use is getting lost or usurped by the rush to legalize recreational cannabis.
I think it's very chaotic at the moment, and in states where cannabis is fully legalized, many people believe that medical will just "go away." They’re questioning why someone would jump through all these hoops to see a doctor and get a recommendation, when they can just walk into a dispensary and buy anything they want.
[But] medical use needs to be covered by insurance and it needs to be protected. I think patients need to be empowered with education, [and that] they also need medically-staffed and supportive places to buy medicine that are not catering to a recreational crowd.
So what inspired you to tell the stories behind ‘Weed the People’? How was directing it the same (or different) to your previous documentaries?
Weed the People began almost accidentally. [My partner] Ricki Lake and I were in pre-production for our upcoming birth control documentary, when she became involved in helping a 7-year-old fan who was very sick.
This little girl was going through chemo for a genetic tumor disorder that had no cure, so Ricki and her husband Christian started researching alternative therapies and came upon all these studies about the tumor-inhibiting properties of cannabis. The next thing I knew, we were all on a plane to Mendocino to meet a cannabis physician and get this child started on oils.
So the process of making this documentary was entirely different than any of my previous projects because I literally dove in head-first. There was no preconceived idea, no planning or forethought -- we were literally just following the science and the families in real time.
Your films have centered around issues that impact millions of women's lives, and yet for years, have seemingly been too "taboo" to talk about publicly (let alone on the big screen). What has sparked you to tell these stories?
I am definitely drawn to "game-changing" stories that challenge people's preconceived notions and can have lasting cultural impact. Many of my film projects have evolved in tandem with my own personal awakenings. As a filmmaker, I have challenged my own ignorance and fears while striving to find the most engaging way to share my revelations with an audience.
What about cannabis as a “women’s” issue? My personal experience has been that in terms of high-tech industrial or corporate cannabis, it’s largely male-dominated and white -- but there seems to be a real opportunity for women in terms of small businesses, especially in CBD or healthcare.
My brother founded a non-profit called Cage-Free Cannabis which focuses on reparations for the war on drugs, so it's been interesting for us to compare notes through this journey … But yes, I would agree with this.
For example, when I screened Weed the People for Parliament in the UK last summer, the room was filled with Canadian bankers, and there were very few women in attendance. Most of the conferences and industry gatherings I’ve attended are predominantly attended by white men -- who also comprise the boards of most cannabis companies.
But I [do] see a lot of women succeeding in the wellness and CBD space, and also creating brands and events that cater directly to women. I think it's an exciting space for women-led businesses right now, [especially because] cannabis has many overall health benefits that appeal to women in terms of improving sleep, stress, sexual pleasure, autoimmune disease, aging, PMS. And of course, the beauty industry is now developing tons of "CBD" products.
Lastly, what has it been like trying to get the word out? Were you guys able to buy social media ads, banner ads or billboards, or were you hampered by the current wacky state of regulations around weedvertising?
It has been a huge struggle to get the word about the film. Documentaries don't have large ad budgets so we rely on word-of-mouth for the most part, but it's been frustrating for everyone on the digital and PR team.
We were actually featured in a Forbes article that goes into more detail about this, more specifically about [how] women in media are trying to elevate the conversation [around cannabis] but are being hampered by censorship.
In the beginning, all of our paid ads were pulled on Facebook until I reached out to a friend whose brother [was in a leadership role there]. And we were able to get our ads approved, but they [still] don't reach as many people as they should, and [it’s frustrating] to not to be able to engage with our over 80,000 followers. We started to regret putting the word "weed" in the film title!