Ricki Lake's ‘Weed the People' documentary features Sonoma County cannabis oil maker

'I was willing to do it if it was going to further the discussion that cannabis is real medicine,' Bodega Bay's Mara Gordon said. The film, produced by Ricki Lake, follows families with cancer-stricken children and the advocates trying to help them.|

In a scene from a new documentary, “Weed the People,” produced by television celebrity Ricki Lake, Sonoma County resident Mara Gordon and her husband, Stewart Smith, are at the stove in their kitchen, simmering ground-up cannabis in organic olive oil.

They discuss what blend of marijuana strains would help a woman named Linda with stage 4 cancer, which had spread to her lungs and abdomen. The woman wanted pain relief but didn't want a feeling of “stoniness” from the oil they were cooking for her, Gordon said.

“I was thinking of putting her on the Williams Wonder and cutting it with the Cannatonic,” Gordon says, describing two different marijuana strains, in the film.

“That's a good plan,” Stewart said.

Gordon is featured in the documentary, released on Netflix in May, as a dosing specialist advising families that trying to help their cancer-stricken children survive their illnesses and withstand the effects of chemotherapy with cannabis oils.

The film shows parents, some over the course of about five years, navigating the unregulated world of medical marijuana in their desperate efforts to alleviate their children's suffering. With no doctors to advise them, they are left to figure it out themselves.

“We're in unchartered waters - we're lab rats,” said Tracy Ryan, a mother in the film whose 9-month-old daughter, Sophie Ryan, was diagnosed with optic pathway glioma, a slow-growing brain tumor near the optic nerve.

Enter Gordon, a retired process engineer. Appalled by the lack of consistency of so-called medical marijuana products at dispensaries, Gordon became obsessed with building a body of anecdotal data to help people with serious medical issues decide how much and what types of cannabis to take.

“I'm not practicing medicine,” Gordon said in an interview this week. “I'm making recommendations when there is no doctor to tell them what to do. As soon as there's a doctor to tell them, let a doctor tell them.”

Gordon said she was asked to take part in the documentary after Lake's husband, Christian Evans, heard her speak at a cannabis event in Southern California.

“I was willing to do it if it was going to further the discussion that cannabis is real medicine,” Gordon said.

A central thread of the documentary is the U.S. government's 70-plus year effort to block research into the potential health benefits of marijuana, long described in folk remedy journals. The filmmakers interview scientists, doctors, herbalists and medical marijuana advocates who describe their efforts to combat the stigma and help people avoid addictive and sometimes harmful drugs, including heavy narcotics. The federal government still considers marijuana an illegal, addictive drug without any medical use, alongside heroin.

Director Abby Epstein, who previously teamed up with Lake to make the film “The Business of Being Born,” said they didn't set out to make a film about drug policy. Inspired by the plight of a girl with cancer, the one-hour, 37-minute film was borne out of an interest in exploring how people were “using this medicine to heal,” Epstein said.

In the film, they interview families of sick children, medical professionals, advocates, herbalists and scientists in Israel and Spain conducting research into marijuana's cancer-fighting potential.

Gordon said she started using cannabis after getting meningitis in a hospital where she went for minor surgery. Doctors told her she'd have to take fentanyl, a strong synthetic opioid, indefinitely, but she hated the way it made her feel and believed it degraded the quality of her life.

She tried cannabis, which she said helped alleviate her discomfort while allowing her to remain active. She started infusing oil with cannabis on the stove and baking it into her Aunt Zelda's carrot cake recipe. Word of her concoctions spread, and Gordon began giving her oils and cakes to friends and others.

“The cost is you have to let me know how much you take, when you take it, what the effect was so I could get feedback information,” Gordon said. “I started collecting data, so I was collecting data from day one. I was writing down every milligram.”

Today, she runs a company called Aunt Zelda's that creates specialized oils, tinctures and salves designed for people with serious health issues and available throughout the state. She also operates a cannabis oil manufacturing facility in Santa Rosa, The Oil Plant.

In 2013, when Epstein and Lake began filming “Weed the People,” medical marijuana in California was still loosely regulated without testing requirements or other standards.

Families were paying too much money for dubious-quality marijuana to give their children, Epstein said. The filmmakers connected three families with Gordon and filmed her efforts to help them over the course of several years. At that point, Gordon was still making cannabis-infused oils in her kitchen in Walnut Creek before she moved to Bodega Bay - and she was not the typical sort of marijuana advocate depicted in popular culture, Epstein said.

The film shows Gordon visiting clients in the hospital and in their homes, consulting with them over the phone and making recommendations for dosages.

“It was unbelievable to me just how much Mara and others were taking on in terms of these patients. You saw (scenes) in the hospital - she was there,” Epstein said. “It's amazing to me how they've set this up in a way that handcuffs the doctors and made all these strange middlemen. It's such a maze for the patients to navigate.”

One of the parents in the film, Angela Smith, said in an email this week that the film shows her family's “most desperate time.” The first oil she bought for her son, Chico, who was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a type of sarcoma that develops in soft tissue such as muscles, was made with what smelled like rubbing alcohol - not something she wanted her very sick son to ingest. Her son was on so many different types of narcotics, including at one point methadone, and she was determined to wean him off those dangerous drugs. Gordon provided her with oil and helped her adjust dosing throughout the boy's treatment.

“I was desperate to have good quality oil to help my son,” Smith said.

The filmmakers visit Chico over several years, and show his transformation from a sick child barely able to move to a vibrant teen riding a bike.

In the end, three of the children, including Chico, are thriving after years of a combination of medical treatment and cannabis use guided by their parents and other providers, including Gordon. One boy died and another child remains in treatment.

“If you've seen the film you know it doesn't work for all the children,” Epstein said. “The advocacy of the film is around the hypocrisy: why block this one plant when a lot of these kids have open prescriptions for OxyContin in doses strong enough to kill a horse?”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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