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Medicinal pot documentary shares hopes for legalization at SXSW

In February 2018, the first of three-licensed medicinal cannabis dispensaries planned for Texas, Knox Medical located in Schulenburg, made the first legal delivery of medical cannabis to a 6-year-old Texan.
Credit: SXSW
"Weed the People," directed by Abby Epstein, premiered at Austin's South by Southwest Film Festival.

The fight for legalization of marijuana, both recreational and medicinal, has been a hot topic in recent years, and it continues with the premiere of the documentary, “Weed The People” at the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival.

“Weed the People," directed by Abby Epstein and executive produced by Ricki Lake, follows five children and their families dealing with the hardships of pediatric cancer and their journeys as they seek medicinal cannabis as an alternative form of treatment.

Although the documentary starts in 2013, Lake said the development of “Weed The People” began a year prior – and by accident.

“We make mostly movies about women’s health and reproductive rights, and we really weren’t necessarily focusing on cannabis,” Lake said. “My husband, Christian Evans, who passed away last year, he sort of discovered this plant for his own healing benefit and also for his grandfather (who) was sick.”

Lake said she and her husband then met a little girl battling an incurable genetic disease, and flew her out to a cannabis doctor to get her help. From there, Lake reached out to Epstein, and together they came up with the premise for “Weed The People.”

“We didn’t come from a place of drug reform policy or cannabis advocacy,” Epstein said. “It came from a personal story, a story of healing, the story of a child that didn’t have any other options other than chemo, and could this be an option for her.”

After meeting that child, Epstein and Lake met more children battling various diseases. Eventually the film evolved around pediatric cancer, and how, specifically, medicinal cannabis could make a difference in the lives of those documented.

“We started thinking pediatric because I think that really erases the stigma, and then you don’t have this sort of thing like, ‘Oh they just really like their medicine,'” Epstein said.

At the beginning of “Weed The People,” viewers are introduced to each of the children.

Chico Ryder is diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare malignant tumor that involves muscle tissue, after what started as a swollen tonsil.

AJ Kephart is a 17-year-old boy who doctors diagnosed with Stage 4 osteosarcoma -- commonly known as bone cancer – which spread to his lungs and spine. At one point, AJ had as many as 20 tumors in his chest.

Sophia Ryan, who is 9-months-old at the start of the film, has optic pathway glioma, a brain tumor that is located in or around the optic nerve, which connects the eye to the brain.

AJ Peterson suffers from diffuse instrinsic potine glioma (DIPG), a rare tumor that affects the brain stem. He was given six to nine months to live.

Cecilia von Harz was diagnosed with Wilm’s Tumor, a type of cancer that starts in the kidneys, at 3-years-old.

Epstein and Lake said they chose families who weren’t doing anything outside of Western medicine and were seeking medicinal cannabis with their doctors’ blessings. They said none of the five families were hesitant to share their story on camera.

“They trusted us,” Lake said.

“Weed The People” also explores how marijuana’s reputation came to be in the United States. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 makes the use and possession of cannabis illegal under federal law. In the film, drug policy experts weigh in, saying lawmakers need to change policy for the sake of medical research.

As of now, medical marijuana is legal in 29 states, plus Washington D.C., Guam and Puerto Rico. There are nine states, plus Washington D.C., where the sale and possession recreational marijuana is legal. Texas is not on either of those lists.

However, there are exceptions. In 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott signed the Compassionate Use Act, a law legalizing the sale of medicinal cannabis oil to Texans to alleviate intractable epilepsy.

In February 2018, the first of three licensed medicinal cannabis dispensaries planned for the state, Knox Medical located in Schulenburg, made the first legal delivery of medical cannabis to a 6-year-old Texan. The second one, called Compassionate Cultivation, opened in the Austin-area and began selling product on Feb. 8. Patients with permission from a registered physician can get access to cannabidiol oil, known as CBD oil.

Epstein and Lake said the dispensary’s opening is “promising” and “progressive” for Texas, and hope the dispensaries make an effort to distinguish them from the black market – and work accordingly with patients.

“I think it’s great, I really think it’s great, but it has to be medical, professional, integrated with the health care system,” Epstein said.

Production for the film wrapped up just a week before SXSW. Both Epstein and Lake said they are confident that it will be well-received as it continues through the festival circuit – adding they anticipate criticism as well.

“We’re learning that we can’t please everyone, with all of the artistic choices and everyone’s opinions,” Lake said. “At the end of the day, I think miracles happened on film and over the last five years for these children.”

“Weed the People” holds its final screening at SXSW on Wednesday, March 14 at 4:45 p.m. at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar Boulevard.

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