Chem Tales: Cannabis Movies Enter Mill Valley Film Fest

Weed the People explores the power of cannabis as medicine, while a panel with local icons The Waldos delivers stoney delight.

Despite the fact that Mill Valley currently has zero dispensaries, cannabis was the talk of the town at the city’s eponymous film festival on Saturday.

Leading off a day of Mill Valley Film Festival programming titled “Cannabis Culture,” things started on a somber but inspiring note with a screening of the documentary Weed the People. Directed by Abby Epstein (The Business of Being Born) and produced by Hairspray alum Ricki Lake, the film follows five children with cancer and their parents as they discover the potentially life-saving benefits of medicinal cannabis.

While it would’ve been easy for Epstein to take her subject matter as an opportunity to proselytize the proven and incredible role cannabis (chiefly the cannabinoids THC and CBD) can play in reducing some tumors and alleviating the devastating side effects of chemotherapy, she wisely lets the story speak for itself.

The true star of the film turns out to be Mara Gordon, founder of the medicinal cannabis enterprise Aunt Zelda’s. Watching Gordon visit with these children and guide their parents through the unnecessarily complex process of administering oils is enough to make anyone want to hug her and thank her for her endless compassion and dedication.

Attendees got such a chance when Epstein, Lake, and Gordon all appeared on-stage to take audience questions following the film’s conclusion. Lake shared how her interest in the project began when a very ill 6-year-old girl contacted her on Twitter to express her fondness for the actress’ appearance on Dancing with the Stars. The two began a correspondence that ultimately led Lake and her late husband, Christian Evans, to invite the girl to stay with them and visit with a cannabis doctor located in Mendocino.

“This film is Christian’s legacy,” she said, explaining that her spouse had long-suffered from a variety of maladies, including chronic pain. It was Evans who began researching the potential benefits of medicinal cannabis — the precursor to a six-year process that spurred a documentary that Lake believes may finally change public perception.

“I think this could really be the tipping point,” Lake said. “We showed our film in Oklahoma right before the vote on a referendum to legalize, and it passed.”

The conversation about medicinal cannabis — including the efforts of large pharmaceutical companies to suppress research, and the fact that until 70 years ago it was widely prescribed in tincture form — continued with a panel hosted at the Sweetwater Music Hall in downtown Mill Valley.

Gordon raised a fascinating point: Marketing efforts to separate CBD (a non-psychoactive cannabinoid) from THC in relation to health benefits were hugely detrimental to the movement to make cannabis a mainstream medical option.

“CBD alone is not the answer,” she explained, citing projects like Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s CNN documentary series, Weeds, as ineffectual in conveying the truth behind why cannabis may ultimately play a huge role in treating cancer and a host of other diseases and conditions.

The atmosphere was far lighter for an afternoon panel featuring the Waldos, a group of San Rafael High School alums who inadvertently created the concept of “420.” While the Waldos have done their fair share of press in recent years, it was a rare treat to see the gang in person for a panel moderated by Variety’s Shirley Halperin. They even brought some of the evidence they’ve used in proving their case, including postmarked letters and a handmade “420” flag made by one of their friends during art class.

For anyone unfamiliar with the story, the Waldos coined “420” as a reference to the time of day they would meet at the high school’s statue of Louis Pasteur to toke up and explore West Marin in pursuit of a patch of pot they were given a map to, courtesy of a friend’s brother in the U.S. Coast Guard. Eventually, the Waldos realized that they could use “420” as shorthand for pot without their parents or teachers being clued in, and it became one of many inside jokes they maintained over the years.

As to how the term found its way into the mainstream from such humble origins, Waldo Dave Reddix believes his own brother’s friendship with Grateful Dead member Phil Lesh offers one possible explanation.

“My brother would take me to hang with Phil and David Crosby,” Reddix told the crowd. “We’d smoke backstage and I’d use the expression ‘420’ frequently. There were tons of people around and they all picked it up. I think that might be how it made its way into Deadhead culture.”

The stories of the Waldos seemed destined for a documentary of their own. In just under an hour, they recalled fantastical memories like the time they were pulled over with a female friend in Southern California on their way to see a taping of The Tonight Show because police officers suspected they might be the members of the SLA transporting Patty Hearst. Perhaps no story is more surreal than Waldo Jeff’s admission that the group obtained most of their weed by pilfering the contraband collected by his father, a high-level state narcotics officer.

With such a robust day of programming centered on the past and future of cannabis, you have to wonder how long Mill Valley and Marin County will be able to entice icons of pot culture to a place where no one can actually buy it. Hopefully, life will soon take the hint to imitate art.

Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music for SF Weekly. |  @zackruskin

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