‘Weed the People’ Explores Medical Marijuana for Kids With Cancer
M arijuana, both medicinal and recreational, is growing more mainstream. Medical marijuana is now legalized in a majority of states, and 62% of Americans support legalizing it outright — but in the political realm, the plant has long been controversial.
Now, a new documentary called Weed the People, which opens in some theaters in October, explores the potential of medical marijuana for childhood cancers and the regulatory hurdles facing people who want to use cannabis. The film, which was executive produced by former talk-show host Ricki Lake, follows five families using cannabis oils to treat pediatric cancers. Some of the children used cannabis alongside treatments like chemotherapy, while others turned to the drug after conventional treatments had failed.
Lake became interested in medical marijuana when her late ex-husband, Christian Evans, began researching cannabidiol (CBD) — a compound in marijuana that does not cause a high —for his own health issues, including chronic pain and ADHD. (Evans died by suicide last year.) The two met a young girl with a tumor disorder whose family was desperate to get her off chemotherapy, and they helped connect her with a doctor who specializes in medical marijuana. Lake and her production partner, director Abby Epstein, were inspired to find other families in similar situations and tell their stories on screen. They made Weed the People to explore the potential of medical marijuana, and the regulatory challenges families and researchers must overcome to use it.
“I want to get people seeing it as a medicine, seeing what it was able to do for these children, and fight for this medicine to be available to everyone who needs it,” Lake says. “It’s a human rights issue.”
The film paints a rosy, anecdotal picture of the effectiveness of cannabis oils; some of the children featured had their tumors shrink substantially or disappear entirely, even if they were using cannabis oils in place of chemotherapy and other conventional treatments. “You can’t say the ‘cure’ word,” Lake says, “but how else do you explain it?”
But the concept is far from proven and could even be dangerous. While there is some evidence that marijuana can ease chronic pain and chemotherapy side effects, the American Cancer Society (ACS) warns that “relying on marijuana alone as treatment while avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.” And while some studies have shown that compounds in marijuana can slow growth of or kill tumor cells in animals or lab dishes, evidence in humans — particularly around marijuana oils — is lacking, the ACS says. While conventional treatments like chemotherapy are still the standard, pediatric cancer providers are increasingly voicing their support for the use of medical marijuana, particularly in palliative or end-of-life care when other treatments may not be necessary.
More research is needed to learn about the potential effects and limitations of cannabis-derived medicines for both adult and pediatric cancers. As the families and experts in Weed the People see it, this lack of evidence is precisely the problem — and it’s exacerbated by current regulations around medical marijuana.
Marijuana, like heroin and LSD, is classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a Schedule I drug, meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” But in June, the FDA approved the first drug derived from marijuana, a purified version of CBD called Epidiolex, for kids and adults suffering from two rare forms of epilepsy; the DEA then rescheduled Epidiolex (but not CBD as a whole) to schedule V, the lowest restriction classification for controlled substances. Researchers who wish to study cannabis need a Schedule I drug license and must submit to background checks and site visits from the DEA.
The DEA also only permits one institution, the University of Mississippi, to grow marijuana for study, though DEA spokesperson Melvin Patterson says it is planning to grant additional licenses to other growers, which would “increase access to marijuana for researchers, potentially increase the number of available strains for research, and may foster additional research on marijuana.”
This means scientists are limited to studying only the products and formulations available from the University of Mississippi, which doesn’t include popular consumer products like vapes and edibles, says Dr. Jeff Chen, director of the University of California Los Angeles Cannabis Research Initiative. “At my office at UCLA, I look out my window and I can count two dispensaries that I can see,” Chen says. “We can’t touch that cannabis—not even to understand what’s in it.”
As a result of these challenges, many families who wish to use cannabis, including those in the documentary, are forced to buy it from sources outside the conventional medical system, and must trust that what they’re using is safe. “I just find it absolutely staggering to accept that in this day and age, with the billions of dollars that are spent on cancer research, the medicine we were relying on was made in somebody’s kitchen,” says Angela Smith in the film, whose son, Chico, uses cannabis oils to treat his soft tissue cancer.
Chen, who was not in the film but shares its frustration with current marijuana regulations, became swayed by the medical potential of cannabis compounds early in his career, when he encountered a young patient with epilepsy whose parents were treating her with CBD. Unfamiliar with CBD, Chen and his colleagues almost called Child Protective Services to intervene—until Chen looked into the compound further and saw how much he didn’t know.
“That’s when I realized that science had completely left cannabis in the dark,” Chen says. “It was time for science to step up and really to push on this issue. I felt a duty.” Today, Chen works to understand the health benefits and risks of marijuana and its many compounds, including CBD.
The film also touches on funding challenges associated with marijuana research, an impediment Chen has encountered with his own research. While the government does fund some marijuana research, Chen says the “vast majority” of federal dollars go toward understanding the harms of cannabis, not the potential benefits. Researchers who wish to study how marijuana may improve treatment for conditions ranging from cancer to chronic pain are largely left to find the money themselves, Chen says.
These roadblocks have led many researchers, including those quoted in the film, to call for looser marijuana scheduling, but the DEA denied two such petitions in 2016. Dr. Igor Grant, director of the Center for Medical Cannabis Research at the University of California San Diego, who was not in the film, agrees that current regulations have made research more difficult, and says marijuana probably doesn’t belong in schedule I. But he says he doesn’t believe that the government is actively trying to stifle cannabis research, as many people—including some in Weed the People—have alleged.
Grant says there’s some evidence that the barriers are becoming fewer. His lab recently made history by importing research-approved marijuana from Canada, a move that suggests U.S. researchers may soon have greater access to the plant. That access, combined with lighter regulations from the government, could open new doors, Grant says.
“You would have to both reschedule it and increase the availability of manufacturers,” he says. “This could be a joint effort between states, manufacturers, academia and federal [regulators].”
This type of collaboration is crucial, Lake says, and she hopes her documentary will garner public support for it. “I’m really hoping to reach the people who really have this idea that this drug is bad,” Lake says. “It’s a matter of just changing mindsets and having them fight to have access to this plant. I do believe change is coming.”
Here’s the truth about CBD, from a cannabis researcher
Is CBD a cure-all — or snake oil? Jeffrey Chen, executive director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, explains the science behind the cannabis product.
CBD gummies. CBD shots in your latte. CBD dog biscuits. From spas to drug stores, supermarkets to cafes, wherever you go in the US today, you’re likely to see products infused with CBD. There are cosmetics, vape pens, pills and, of course, the extract itself; there are even CBD-containing sexual lubricants for women which aim to reduce pelvic pain or enhance sensation. CBD has been hailed by some users as having cured their pain, anxiety, insomnia, depression or seizures, and it’s been touted by advertisers as a supplement that can treat all of the above and combat aging and chronic disease.
As Executive Director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, I’m dedicated to unearthing the scientific truth — the good and the bad — behind cannabis and CBD. My interest was sparked in 2014 when I was a medical student at UCLA, and I discovered a parent successfully treating her child’s severe epilepsy with CBD. I was surprised and intrigued. Despite California legalizing medical cannabis in 1996, we weren’t taught anything about cannabis or CBD in med school. I did research and found other families and children like Charlotte Figi reporting success with CBD, and I knew it was something that needed to be investigated. I established Cannabis Research Initiative in the fall of 2017, and today we have more than 40 faculty members across 18 departments and 8 schools at UCLA working on cannabis research, education and patient-care projects.
So what exactly is CBD and where does it come from? CBD is short for cannabidiol, one of the compounds in the cannabinoid family which, in nature, is found only in the cannabis plant (its official scientific name is Cannabis sativa l.). THC — short for tetrahydrocannabinoid — is the other highly abundant cannabinoid present in cannabis that’s used today. THC and CBD exert their effects in part by mimicking or boosting levels of endocannabinoids, chemical compounds that are naturally produced by humans and found throughout our bodies. Endocannabinoids play an important role in regulating mood, memory, appetite, stress, sleep, metabolism, immune function, pain sensation, and reproduction.
Despite the fact that they’re both cannabinoids found only in the cannabis plant, THC and CBD are polar opposites in many ways. THC is intoxicating and responsible for the “high” of cannabis, but CBD has no such effect. THC is addictive; CBD is not addictive and even appears to have some anti-addictive effects against compounds like opioids. While THC stimulates the human appetite, CBD does not. There are areas where they overlap — in preliminary animal studies, THC and CBD exhibit some similar effects, including pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties and anti-oxidant and neuroprotective effects. In some early research, they’ve even shown the ability to inhibit the growth of cancer cells, but years of rigorous studies need to be conducted before we’ll know whether they have the same impact on humans.
Even though humans have been using cannabis for thousands of years, the products available today are not the cannabis that has traditionally been consumed. After cannabis was prohibited at the federal level in 1970 by the US Controlled Substances Act, illicit growers were incentivized to breed strains that had higher amounts of THC, so they could increase their profits without needing larger growing spaces. What they didn’t know was that by driving up THC content, they were dramatically reducing the CBD content. In 1995, after decades of surreptitious breeding, the ratio of THC to CBD was ~15:1, and by 2014 the ratio had jumped to ~80:1 as CBD content further plummeted.
Due to decades of research restrictions in the US and growers’ focus on THC, there are very few human studies that look at CBD and its effects. The strongest evidence we have is that CBD can reduce the frequency of seizures in certain rare pediatric disorders — so much that a CBD-based drug called Epidiolex was FDA-approved in 2018 for this purpose. There is also preliminary human data from small clinical trials with dozens of subjects that suggests CBD may have the potential to be used for conditions like anxiety, schizophrenia, opioid addiction, and Parkinson’s disease. But please note that the participants in these studies generally received several hundreds of milligrams of CBD a day, meaning the 5mg to 25mg of CBD per serving in popular CBD products may likely be inadequate. And even if you took dozens of servings to reach the dosage used in these clinical trials, there is still no guarantee of benefit because of how preliminary these findings are.
But while there is a lack of concrete and conclusive evidence about CBD’s effects, there is considerable hope. Recent legislative changes around hemp and CBD in the US and across the world have enabled numerous human clinical trials to begin, investigating the use of CBD for conditions such as autism, chronic pain, mood disorders, alcohol use disorder, Crohn’s disease, graft-versus-host-disease, arthritis and cancer- and cancer-treatment-related side effects such as nausea, vomiting and pain. The results of these studies should become available over the next five years.
Furthermore, in an effort to protect consumers, the FDA has announced that it will soon issue and enforce regulations on all CBD products. Buyers should beware because the products being sold today may contain contaminants or have inaccurately labelled CBD content — due to the deluge of CBD products on the market, government agencies haven’t been able to react quickly enough so there is currently no regulation in the US whatsoever on CBD products.
While CBD appears to be generally safe, it still has side effects. In children suffering from severe epilepsy, high doses of CBD have caused reactions such as sleepiness, vomiting and diarrhea. However, we don’t know if this necessarily applies to adults using CBD because these children were very sick and on many medications, and the equivalent dose for an average 154-pound adult would be a whopping 1400 mg/day. And while CBD use in the short term (from weeks to months) has been shown to be safe, we have no data on what side effects might be present with chronic use (from months to years).
Right now, the most significant side effect of CBD we’ve seen is its interaction with other drugs. CBD impacts how the human liver breaks down other drugs, which means it can elevate the blood levels of other prescription medications that people are taking — and thus increase the risk of experiencing their side effects. And women who are pregnant or who are expecting to be should be aware of this: We don’t know if CBD is safe for the fetus during pregnancy.
So where does this leave us? Unfortunately, outside of certain rare pediatric seizure disorders, we scientists do not have solid data on whether CBD can truly help the conditions that consumers are flocking to it for — conditions like insomnia, depression and pain. And even if it did, we still need to figure out the right dose and delivery form. Plus, CBD is not without side effects. Here’s the advice that I give to my friends and family: If you’re using CBD (or thinking about using it), please research products and talk to your doctor so they can monitor you for side effects and interactions with any other drugs you take.
So is CBD a panacea or a placebo? The answer is: Neither. CBD is an under-investigated compound that has the potential to benefit many conditions. While it does have side effects, it appears as if it could be a safer alternative to highly addictive drugs such as opioids or benzodiazepines. And thanks to a recent surge in research, we’ll be learning a lot more about its capabilities and limits in the next five years.