The legal status of marijuana, both for medicinal and recreational purposes, is a topic that continues to be a focus of national discussion in America. And with the recent legalization in Canada, which caused a national shortage in the first week, the conversation is more relevant than ever.
Which is where a film like Weed the People (grade A title, by the way) comes in. The new documentary from director Abby Epstein (The Business of Being Born) is a wonderfully empathetic look at the ongoing medical marijuana debate, focusing on a handful of young cancer patients and how their quality of life is improved by cannabis. Weed the People asks the question of why we’re still denying people such an effective treatment and reminds us what’s really important in this debate.
Over the course of the film’s 97 minutes, we follow Chico, Cecilia, Sophie, and two AJs, all of whom have resorted to this borderline experimental treatment for a variety of reasons. Whether it’s due to the failings of standard treatments or the fact that Sophie’s parents don’t wish to put their very young daughter through chemotherapy, these families all discover cannabis’ surprising effectiveness in cancer treatment.
And the fact that this does come as such a surprise is something that the film confronts, with most of the parents being initially uncertain about their children using what’s widely considered a dangerous substance. Much of which has to do with the prevailing stigma around marijuana use, in addition to the stubbornness of the US government — which continuously stands in the way of important research. Both are explored in the film, highlighting the understandable reasons for the parents’ skepticism.
In fact, a deeper dive into these areas would have served the film well. We get hints of why marijuana was criminalized and how corporations benefit from keeping it that way, although much of this is kept to the sidelines. Which, to be fair, does mean our attention is squarely on the subjects, humanizing a discussion that’s too often plagued with fear-mongering.
And while a more investigative approach may have been appreciated, Weed the People‘s strengths lie in creating empathy for these young people in unthinkable situations. People who have a second chance thanks to the expanding community of growers and advisors.
But as we learn, there is very little support from the medical community, leaving these people to figure it out on their own. We hear doctors admit that they know very little about the treatment, while the hard work is left to people like Mara, whose own experience with medical marijuana inspired her to help families in need of guidance.
Although without sufficient research, these people really are “lab rats,” as illustrated by a scene in which a chemist informs AJ’s family that the product they spent thousands of dollars is no good. And will actually be harmful to their child. No matter what the likes of Mara do, there will always be those looking to exploit people with harmful versions of the treatment. Something which will keep happening until real change is made on the issue of medical cannabis.
There is hope, however, as Weed the People informs us that the cause is beginning to gain a certain legitimacy. And that things are headed in the right direction, with many people waking up to the anti-tumor properties of marijuana and how it can be properly utilized. Even while a scene at Chico’s school reminds us that there’s still a lingering stigma, which will take time to disappear.
And we can only hope that documentaries like this one can go some way towards furthering that legitimacy. Showing us the human side of the debate and finding humor in the absurdity of it all. By giving us a window into the lives of these families, Epstein reminds us of the real people who can benefit from all this. And that anything that can make their quality of life better is worth exploring.