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Filmmakers Want to Make Weed a Human Rights Issue

New documentary explores the use of cannabis for cancer treatment

by Genevieve Kim

October 25, 2018

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Studies in peer-reviewed medical journals have been published on the safety and efficacy of cannabis for treating multiple health issues, including cancer, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, PTSD and multiple sclerosis and pain—yet, drug legislation in many countries inadequately addresses these findings.

Last summer, when officials at the Heathrow London Airport confiscated medical cannabis from a mother, Charlotte Caldwell, and her epileptic son, Billy, the discussion surrounding health and drug legislation reform of the drug erupted. Soon after the confiscation, Billy had two seizures and was rushed to the hospital for specialized care. Prior to this incident, daily regimented treatment with medical cannabis had successfully kept Billy’s epileptic episodes at bay for nearly a year.

With increasing public pressure, the UK’s Home Office acquiesced to Caldwell’s outcry and granted a special, 20-day hospital-administered prescription for Billy. The six-month supply that had been confiscated would not, however, be returned.

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Only 30 countries have legalized medical cannabis, of which the UK is not on the list. Even in the instances in which the drug is legal, there is still a great deal of volatility surrounding legislation, regulation, medical practice and social stigma, jeopardizing access for many others like the Caldwells to receive safe and effective treatment for their illnesses.

In her new documentary Weed the People, director Abby Epstein shares the stories of five different families, like Billy’s, who are safely and effectively treating their children with medical cannabis for cancer, even in the midst of such controversy. Through the heart-wrenching stories of these families, and the voices of medical practitioners, including cannabis physician Dr. Bonni Goldberg, Epstein hopes to get the word out about the safety and science behind medical cannabis. I sit down with Abby Epstein and Dr. Bonni Goldstein at The Assemblage to understand the urgency as to why access and further research of medical cannabis is crucial. As the families’ stories reveal, this a human health rights issue.

Below are excerpts from the interview.

Genevieve Kim: What inspired you to make this film?

Abby Epstein: Christian, Ricki Lake’s [executive producer of Weed the People] late husband, took interest in helping a fan of Ricki’s on Dancing with the Stars, a little girl going through chemo for her cancer. He had been researching the use of cannabis oil for his grandfather’s bone cancer, and one day Ricki called me to say they were going to meet with a doctor in Mendocino and take the little girl to meet him, too. When she told me this I thought this could be a film, so I flew out and brought a camera crew along. This little girl’s story inspired us to make this film. We spent a year going to cannabis conferences and meeting parents whose children were going through cancer treatment, and decided to focus the documentary on children.

Genevieve Kim: How did you start your practice of treating patients with medicinal cannabis?

Dr. Bonni Goldstein: For years, I was a pediatric emergency medicine doctor working the graveyard shift but I got burnt out and took a leave of absence. During that time, a friend with breast cancer asked me about cannabis. I didn’t know anything about [cannabis] at the time, and I was shocked to find that [the medicine] kills cancer, and helps people with nausea, vomiting, anxiety, chronic pain and sleep. These are all the things she was struggling with. When I went back to work, I started part-time at a medical cannabis clinic instead of going back to the emergency room. After meeting with patients three to four months into treatment, and saw how dramatically their health had improved, I thought, this is what I want to do and went full-time in that office. That’s how I got started.

Genevieve Kim: What do you think is one of the biggest myths preventing cannabis from being recognized as a cancer treatment?

Dr. Bonni Goldstein: Two answers: physicians are still taught that cannabis is a drug of abuse, that it has no medical value. It’s a Schedule I drug, and if you prescribe it you will lose your medical license. So that’s the part in the medical world.

Then in the layperson’s world, it’s seen as dangerous. If a doctor recommends a new asthma medication to a parent in a way that is going to help their child, they’ll likely be open to the suggestion. Parents don’t automatically come from a negative stance. With cannabis, though, we have to undo years of brainwashing just to get somebody to consider using cannabis.

We all know people who can take pain medication responsibly, or abuse it. With cannabis, why do we assume everyone using it is a pothead? There are people using it responsibly and there are people who overdo it.

Abby Epstein: Researchers will say ‘Things have been killing cancer in the test tube or in animals for years, but when it goes to humans it fails.’ We’re past that point though. UCLA is 18 months into trials. Israel is years into trials. Real, clinical trials.

Genevieve Kim: You call this a human rights issue in the film. How so?

Dr. Bonni Goldstein: Great Britain did a study by a pharmaceutical company: it took 21 patients who had the same kind of brain cancer as John McCain, and put ten in one group and 11 in another. One group got chemo alone, and the other group got the same chemo, plus cannabis. At one year survival, 53% of chemo-only patients are still alive, and 83% of chemo-plus-cannabis are alive.

There’s something there—why the government is not looking at this is criminal. There are people dying.

There’s a complete blockade to research. If we can de-schedule it, looking just from the research side, then we could have an explosion of information. A person with cancer today, though, doesn’t have time to wait for 37 studies 17 years from now.

Abby Epstein: There is tremendous exploitation of patients going on right now by profit-seeking entities around CBD. Part of having cannabis in this quasi legal-phase is terrible when you hear the stories. There’s a story in our film of a mom who spent thousands of dollars very early on terrible medicine. This kind of oversight puts patients and families at risk.

Dr. Bonni Goldstein: It’s unethical.

Abby Epstein: Lives have been ruined by being associated with criminal records while other people are getting very rich. There are tremendous reparations that need to happen with communities of color who have been ravaged by the arrests of cannabis while people are investing billions of dollars in it, like most recently John Boehner.

Genevieve Kim: What is the biggest barrier to cannabis treatment?

Dr. Bonni Goldstein: Prohibition does not work. Cannabis needs to be de-scheduled so that there can be more studies examining how to treat patients more effectively. During the Nixon administration, there was a committee formed called the Shafer Commission to research whether cannabis should be a Schedule I drug. The study concluded it shouldn’t be, but that research was dismissed and cannabis was kept on Schedule I.

Genevieve Kim: What can the everyday citizen take away from Weed the People and what can they do after?

Abby Epstein: It’s up to the people to demand options and seek them out. Once the minds in people switches and it becomes more of a mainstream conversation it will become very hard to hold that momentum back.

Dr. Bonni Goldstein: Your illness should not be political. The everyday person can call their local representatives and ask “What is your stance on cannabis?” and vote for people who are pro-cannabis or who are at least not anti-cannabis. The second thing to do is go online. Read the science.

Genevieve Kim: What impact do you hope Weed the People will inspire?

Abby Epstein: I feel confident that if mainstream media can cover this and this reaches people, it could really change the conversation.

Dr. Bonni Goldstein: And could even change somebody’s mind, and it could save somebody’s life because they could now consider it.

Weed the People comes to screens in New York at Village East Cinema, on Friday, October 26. Join Abby Epstein, along with fellow member of The Assemblage and producer of the documentary, Giancarlo Canavesio, for a first watch.

Do you think medicinal cannabis should be used for cancer patients?

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