By Nadya Rousseau
“Hey, Nadya, it’s Ricki!” exclaimed the voice on the other end of the phone. I don’t think I had heard someone sound that genuinely excited to speak to me in a while. Either I need to get a new circle of friends, or Ricki Lake is really this nice
The latter statement, of course, was the reality. Ricki and I were going to chat about her latest documentary film Weed the People, which exposes the myriad benefits of medical cannabis for pediatric cancer patients, and how the profiled families risk financial and political stability to heal their children.
Obviously, I couldn’t start the convo without mentioning how much I adored her in Hairspray and was a major Ricki fan in the 1990s.
Really, what 90s kid wasn’t a fan? I, like many other Millennials who grew up in the 1990s, recall flipping on daytime TV to Ricki Lake–her eponymous talk show which was on the air for eleven seasons. Unlike some of the other shows of that era, Lake chose to shed light on progressive topics (including LGBT issues, gender issues, and race) through frank exploratory discussion versus sensationalizing them.
Fast-forward fifteen years, and Lake not only has had yet another talk show, an Emmy, a few TV cameos, appearances on shows like Dancing with the Stars and The Masked Singer under her belt, but also a growing documentary film career. With her producing partner and longtime friend, filmmaker Abby Epstein, Lake has reinvented herself as a storyteller behind the camera, investigating impactful stories for wellness and social change such as her 2008 documentary The Business of Being Born (all about modern childbirth processes and alternatives).
In that time, Lake also has experienced devastating loss–her ex-husband, Christian Evans, whom she had remained close with after their 2015 divorce, tragically took his own life in 2017.
Weed the People, produced by Lake and directed by Epstein, follows five families’ journeys to treat their children’s cancer with medical cannabis. The film, as Lake would explain to me, is a way to memorialize Evans, as his advocacy for the plant was the key catalyst for the making of the project.
In our under twenty-five-minute phone conversation to discuss the documentary, I could immediately pick up how immensely sensitive, awake, and in tune with the world, Lake was. It’s her mission to expose just how life-giving cannabis can be for sick people–specifically children.
“We really need to be deprogrammed about this plant and I think it’s a great start that this movie is a real tool for people to break it down for, you know, the smallest of people suffering, the small babies that are not looking to get high. They’re looking to get better. They’re looking to feel better,” Lake stated.
In 2018, 3.3% of the California population was comprised of medical cannabis patients. That’s approximately 1,200,000 people who were able to treat their illness with a plant still classified as a Schedule 1 illegal substance by the federal government. Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia currently have passed laws generally legalizing marijuana in some capacity. Still, medical patients cannot travel from a legal state, like California, to a non-legal state, like Texas by plane without risking possible criminalization.
Weed the People’s concept arrived back in 2012 when Lake received a powerful tweet from a fan–not realizing it would completely shift the course of her life.
“She was a fan of mine from Dancing with the Stars and was going through chemotherapy and very sick from the medicine, and I can’t explain why, but both my husband and I took it upon ourselves to move her and her family into our home in California which was a legal state. They lived in the Midwest and we went on this journey of trying to find integrative care for her, including cannabis.”
Evans had been experimenting with medical cannabis to treat a variety of issues ranging from anxiety to chronic pain to migraines to depression. (He continued to struggle and, despite their divorce in 2015, Lake would stay with Evans through 2016 and continue researching the benefits of CBD and medical cannabis.)
They both hoped that the young girl might enjoy the beneficial properties of cannabis and other therapies just as Evans had, so they took a leap of faith and invited her into their home.
“It was me talking to my friend Abby, my partner who lives in New York, and just saying to her, ‘You’re not going to believe the latest chapter of my life. I have this child and her family with me. We’re going to see a doctor. I chartered a jet. We’re taking her up to Mendocino to meet this doctor Courtney.’ And she was like, ‘Wait a minute, I think this could be our next film.’”
The child and her family did not actually end up in Weed the People, however. She did not have pediatric cancer; she suffered from a genetic disease called Neurofibromatosis Type 1.
“We got her everything in place, we got the medicine, and she never actually took it; then that family decided to not be part of the film, but that was the start of it.”
It goes without saying that any good parent who has a very sick child will go to any lengths to get him/her/them well. Lake, a mother of two, takes this to heart.
“It’s unfathomable to me that we are denying these people access to something that actually can help them. It can’t hurt them. It can’t kill them. It’s nontoxic. You can’t overdose. I mean, why this isn’t the go-to medicine for so many different ailments is really beyond me.”
In the documentary, viewers can see how pure love drives the parents to cast former beliefs about medical cannabis aside to pursue its medicinal benefits for their ailing children.
“We wanted early on to focus on children and then we narrowed it and I think part of it was the children that came to us. It wasn’t like we did a casting search for these families. They sort of fell into our lap in different ways.”
Many of the families were also conservative, coming from very religious backgrounds.
“It’s really interesting ‘cause most of the families that we followed were also extremely religious, you know. And so that was just also by chance… I believe it’s a bipartisan issue. You know all people on both sides of the aisle get sick with these diseases. I think the film is super powerful as watching these families and these children suffering. It breaks it all down.”
Lake and Epstein are passionate about how they bring such sensitive issues to large audiences. The choice to focus on pediatric cancer, was, in large part Epstein’s–knowing how touched audiences would be. And for Lake, it remains an eternal connection to Evans.
“Every piece of frame of this film has been meaningful. It’s my husband’s essence and his legacy,” Lake emphasized. “It’s like a sign that he is present, he is aware, he is overseeing and guiding this project. Seeing the culmination of six years of the making film and you know, to present it in DC, where we get a congressional screening at the Capitol building, is major.”
With The Business of Being Born, they looked at how childbirth has become commoditized in America to the detriment of new mothers. Much like the issue with medical cannabis, the theme of “profit over people” hangs in the air.
“With Business of Being Born the same thing, why is normal birth being taken away from women unbeknownst to them because of reasons that are not necessarily in their best interest? That was the start of that film and it’s the same kind of thing; it’s like it’s about exposing this this this system and asking the question and giving people the information so they can make an informed choice.”
When I asked Lake what it’s like working with Epstein (they have a third documentary, Sweetening the Pill, coming out soon), she didn’t hesitate one second with her response.
“I mean, it’s the best work partnership I’ve ever had in my life. We’ve never had a disagreement. I trust her implicitly.”
As the films’ executive producer, Lake wrangles all the funding (she funded The Business of Being Born entirely on her own), while Epstein does all of the direction, filming and editing. Together, they collaborate on the ideas and subject matter of the films.
“It’s a true collaboration.”
Sweetening the Pill will be the duo’s third project together, and just as provocative as the prior two. The documentary will be looking at the history of the birth control pill in an effort to provide women needed the information to make informed decisions about their sexual health.
“I’m so glad you’re doing this,” I told Lake, “because I myself am on a birth control scare. I thought I had a blood clot and I went to the hospital but [it] scared me and then I just said no more.” Even though Lake is a global celebrity with a multimillion-dollar net-worth, somehow, speaking to her about these sensitive subjects felt like speaking to the type of friend you go to seeking maternal advice.
“In a weird way, I think that’s like a blessing in disguise. I’m sorry you had to go through that, but honestly, I was on hormonal birth control for decades and I didn’t know the side effects I was feeling,” Lake asserted.
She also made it clear that this documentary’s intention is not to scare women away from the pill or other forms of birth control by any means, but to ensure that women know all of the potential side effects, for better and for worse.
Aside from her film work, Lake’s recent appearance on FOX’s The Masked Singer offered unexpected catharsis in the wake of grief over Evans’s passing.
“It [The Masked Singer] was a really silly opportunity that came my way. And again I guess I feel like because I do these like legitimate documentary films, I can do a little bit of fluff,” commented Lake. “I got to dress as a raven and be in disguise and just sing my heart out and also pay homage to my beloved. It’s silly and then I get to do, you know, screenings in Washington DC with senators and it’s just my life. It is definitely never boring, right?”
21st Century women are wearing more hats and assuming more roles than ever before (myself included). In the cannabis space, women are some of the key innovators. While working on and promoting Weed the People, Lake has had the opportunity to encounter many such women.
“In making the film I’m meeting so many badass women in the cannabis space. And yes there needs to be more but there are like awesome pioneers and just look at the women in our film, Mara Gordon and Bonni Goldstein. They are heroes and they are… I mean, just the work that they do is so [important] I feel… I have just like goosebumps all over me talking about it and I’m meeting so many women because I’m invited to all these conferences. I’m meeting tons of women that are doing great things in the space. So I’m I’m hopeful. I love being one of them.”
Lake has been a woman who’s pushed barriers on and behind the camera for decades now. I asked how her evolving roles have contributed to her personal growth.
“Oh my gosh. I mean it’s just like I’ve really gotten better with age. I mean even through trauma, through loss, through amazing accolades and I really like all of it. It’s been this journey that’s been hard and beautiful and you know, my oldest son just graduated from college. My youngest is going off to college in the fall. You know, I’m 50 years old. I’m in a beautiful new relationship with a beautiful man; I never thought I’d have that again.”
For Lake, maternal instincts reign supreme—both on the screen, behind it, and in personal life.
“I feel like I found my voice by making these smaller projects that stemmed from my own experience and then my also my own curiosity. And yeah, I guess I am I’m someone who’s curious. I’m someone who’s really compassionate. I care about people at large and I feel like this is where I am best at making a difference.”
I think most would agree that she’s doing an excellent job.
For more information on Weed the People, visit weedthepeoplemovie.com. You can watch the film now on Netflix and other streaming services.
Nadya Rousseau is a Las Vegas-based social entrepreneur, multimedia journalist, and activist. She is the founder and CEO of Alter New Media, a digital marketing agency for impact. Visit alternewmedia.com and follow her on Twitter @nadya_rousseau and Instagram @nadyarousseau.