Brookings Institution Doc Puts A Human Face On The Medical Marijuana Movement

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Photo Credit: Brookings Institution

While legal marijuana dispensaries all over Los Angeles and California just marked their first-ever Green Friday in the post-“adult use” era with Friday’s 4/20 celebration, the medical uses of cannabis tend to get overshadowed in all the hoopla.

Wednesday (April 18) at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, the Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC non-profit dedicated to “conducting in-depth research that leads to new ideas for problems facing society,” co-hosted with Variety a screening of its documentary, “The Life She Deserves,” a departure from its usual white-paper approach. The half-hour film highlights Virginia teenager Jennifer Collins and her family’s fight to help overcome a lifelong struggle with an epilepsy disorder which saw her suffering from multiple seizures. The entire film can be viewed here.

The heart-wrenching tale follows Jennifer (pictured at far right), her mother Beth and father Pat, as they sought treatment for their daughter’s condition, with all the prescribed medication causing debilitating side effects. The quest finally forced the family to split up, with Jennifer and Beth moving to Colorado, where they eventually discovered THCA, a non-psychoactive compound found in raw and live cannabis, which remarkably reduced the seizures and restored her ability to concentrate and even play her beloved guitar.

The film, directed by George Burroughs (far left), with input from Brookings Senior Fellow John Hudak (pictured below), author of the 2016 book, “Marijuana: A Short History,” spotlights the uphill battle still being faced by those in states which haven’t legalized medical cannabis to get the medication they need, as well as the roadblocks the government has placed on research.

In a post-screening discussion led by Variety Executive Editor, Music Shirley Halperin, both Jennifer and her mom Beth, director Burroughs, Hudak and Alternative Herbal Health Services dispensary co-owner/founder and political activist Jason Beck (holding microphone in photo above) weighed in on the issues that still plague the use of medical cannabis to relieve the symptoms and effects of everything from cancer and HIV to PTSD, Chrone’s disease, arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis and epilepsy.  One of the film’s highlights details Jennifer and Beth’s successful attempt last February to get the Virginia Senate to unanimously pass its own medical marijuana legislation.

“There were just so many hurdles and obstacles to overcome,” said Beth of getting her daughter the proper cannabis to eventually help wean her off pharmaceuticals. “And along the way, we met so many other families with stories even more compelling than Jen’s.”

Beck, a veteran cannabis lobbyist who first discovered smoking marijuana helped alleviate his symptoms of cerebral palsy as a 13-year-old, is particularly insistent on referring to legalization as “adult-use,” rather than Colorado’s designation of “recreational” use, insisting the latter leads to the idea that marijuana is being promoted to minors.  “All marijuana use is medicinal,” he insisted, acknowledging that’s the first step towards full legalization. “It’s the issue that gives politicians the cover to support it.”

Hudak pointed out the federal government – specifically citing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but also California Senator Dianne Feinstein and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi – has steadfastly refused to support legalization legislation. He also criticized the lack of government research into cannabis’ medicinal uses, explaining at present, only the University of Mississippi has the fed’s legal OK to cultivate hemp for that purpose. Before leaving office, President Obama was about to change that, adding more university grow centers, but Trump’s election foiled that legislation.

The strength of “The Life She Deserves” is its ability to put a human face – a normal middle-class high school student and her caring family – on an increasingly volatile subject that has often been polarized through its politicization, something Hudak hopes is changing, as both Democrats and Republicans are increasingly finding themselves on the same side of the aisle on the issue.

“The go-to comparison would be same-sex marriage, which saw public opinion change rapidly,” he argued later to a question about the politics of legalization. “Essentially it was America’s immersion therapy. You had a loving couple across the street who happened to be two gay men or two lesbians. And you suddenly realized, when you went to their backyard for a picnic, you didn’t ‘catch it.’ The medical marijuana issue similarly transcends party, especially when someone like Jen becomes its public face. The arc of cannabis reform inevitably moves towards social justice. That’s how a Republican democracy works.”

“These types of stories really bring it all home, and make it relatable to everyone across the country,” adds Beck about the effectiveness of the film. “You might not be able to travel from state to state holding cannabis, but you certainly can carry around a movie about cannabis.”

As for the doc’s target audience, director Burroughs said, “It’s for my aunt and anyone else who voted for Trump. Once I explained the issues to her, she said, ‘I can get behind that.’”

“We wanted to bring a voice to the voiceless,” added Hudak. “Family and community are vital in these areas.  The people who are hurt the most are listened to the least.”

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” acknowledged Beth Collins about the fight still being waged, long after this year’s historic 4/20 is over, pointing to exorbitant state and local taxes as well as the refusal by insurance companies to co-pay. “I just wanted my daughter to have a better life.”

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