Ricki Lake turns 52 in September, and she’s already had at least four careers in that time. Starting out as a young actress in John Waters’ films and landing her own, wildly popular talk show at age 24, Lake has always been one of the more candid and authentic celebrities in Hollywood, especially when it comes to talking about her own life.
The subject of cannabis, both for medicinal and recreational use, wasn’t one that she gave much thought to until she met her second husband, Christian Evans, in 2009. Evans suffered from bipolar disorder and migraines, and had relied on medical marijuana for many years, and because of him, Lake discovered how it could help her own physical and mental well-being. (Evans tragically took his own life in 2017.)
Those discoveries led her to research cannabis use in pediatric oncology patients, the subject of the second documentary project produced with directing partner Abby Epstein, which came out in 2018. Weed the People looks at how cannabis is being used both as a palliative treatment and as an experimental clinical treatment for kids with different cancers.
We talked with Lake on the phone this week about how cannabis has impacted her life, and seeking justice for those incarcerated for marijuana crimes.
SPARC: What first sparked your interest in medical cannabis?
Ricki Lake: “Sparc” being the operative word, huh? [laughs] My husband who has since passed away was very interested in cannabis as a medicine both for his own healing, and for his grandfather who was dying of bone cancer. This is back in 2012/2013, and he was bed-bound a lot from chronic pain from migraines and back pain, so he would just search the internet and find different things, and he landed on cannabis.
At the same time, he found a HuffPost Live broadcast where a doctor treating an infant with cancer had been putting cannabis oil on a baby’s pacifier for a period of four months, and then suddenly the tumor was gone. And he put two and two together, and that was the start of Weed the People. We found this little girl who was going to chemotherapy and we kind of took her under our wing and she was living in our house, and we went on this quest to find her medical cannabis oil. She didn’t end up in the final film, but that was the start of this film, which was six years in the making.
So you had a very personal connection to this project.
I did, and at the same time, cannabis wasn’t even my medicine. I wasn’t informed about it… it’s kind of shocking, because I had this talk show for so long and I was in this role of moderator, and I should have been more informed. I was in the ‘Say no to drugs’ generation, growing up with Reagan telling us to stay away from cannabis. And it was in the making of this film that I just came full-circle. I’m a cannabis user, both recreationally and medicinally. And it’s just like Dr. Sanjay Gupta admitting he was wrong, we were all wrong. It’s not just about getting people access to this medicine, but also to get those people out of jail who were punished for it.
You said you’ve personally used it medicinally. Do you want to say for what?
Sleep, anxiety, sometimes pain. It’s not like I have some health issue, thank god. But it helps with everything. Literally, everything. I especially like these certain gummies which have been helping me sleep, and particularly now we all have so much anxiety right now, cannabis has been a life-saver for me. And living in California, I’m so lucky to have access to such great medicine.
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Are there ways that cannabis is used for pediatric oncology that are specifically unique to children?
There are practitioners using it for different types of cancer. In the film we fly to Israel, and because it’s legal there, there are major studies happening. They’re able to test different strains of cannabis for use in treating different types of cancer. Here in the U.S. it’s still, you know, touch-and-go. Everybody has their own endocannabinoid system and everyone reacts differently, and with children it can be complicated. There are some amazing doctors, and it’s changed so much since we started the film in 2012. UCLA is doing all these studies now… they’re fine-tuning it, and they’re having some success with certain types of cancer, and it’s exciting.
You’re working on your third documentary now, about the birth control pill, and Weed the People was your second?
I’ve made more than two. But Weed the People was my second big one after The Business of Being Born, which was about the natural childbirth movement.
How do you see these topics dove-tailing, in terms of the progression of these films?
Weed the People was kind of out of our wheelhouse, me and Abby Epstein, my partner and director. We were focusing more on women’s health and reproductive health, and like I said cannabis was my husband Christian’s passion and this was his legacy. But to me, the whole theme is about choice, about informed choice, and having access to information so that you can make a choice when it comes to your health or the health of your child. We all need to be advocating for ourselves and fighting to have access to this information — and in the case of cannabis, fighting to have access to this medicine. With the topic of birth control, there’s a lot that’s not understood about these drugs, and having five minutes with Planned Parenthood or with your doctor you don’t really get the full picture of what these drugs actually do to a woman, particularly a young woman — again, it’s about informed choice. It’s not about scaring women off the pill, it’s about education.
You mentioned your talk show — did you ever touch on marijuana as a topic in your 11 years on the air?
We had to have… I did like 3100 hours of television. I’m sure we did a “My Boyfriend Smokes Too Much Pot” show or something like that. I don’t remember specifically… I just know who I was back then and I was super judgmental. My husband at the time was a pot smoker but I wasn’t — I smoked one time in college and got super paranoid and then didn’t touch it again for many years. I would have liked to have done a Donahue-type show, but our focus was always much more on relationships.
OH — actually I’m now remembering, on the second talk show in 2012 we did do a show about cannabis. It was about cannabis oil, and we had that girl “Brave Michaela” — she didn’t end up being in the film because I remember there ended up being something sketchy with that story. But we did do one show on cannabis as it pertained to childrens’ cancer.
How do you see cannabis laws being impacted by the social justice movement?
I saw George Gascon — the guy who was DA in San Francisco who was recently running in Los Angeles — I saw him speak, and he was unbelievable. I was so impressed with him and what he said and I really wanted him to win. [The DA’s race is headed for a runoff election in November and Gascon will again be up against the incumbent, Jackie Lacey.] It’s criminal that these people — particularly black and brown people — have been disproportionately incarcerated [on cannabis] charges. It’s awful. It’s a complete travesty, and it needs to be changed now. I was just watching John Oliver talking about the prison system and the COVID outbreaks. It’s just a petri dish, and all these people are just sitting there either waiting for trial or in the case of drug or cannabis charges… it just needs to be reformed yesterday. If there’s any way that I can help, I’d love to lend my name and lend support to this.
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There’s an outbreak right now at San Quentin that’s blown up in the last several days, hundreds of cases…
It’s so fucked up… Every news story is a nightmare. I can not believe that this is the state of our society. I don’t have any loved ones who are in that system, who are incarcerated. But that is all of us — that represents all of us. We all need to be completely outraged at the state of everything.
I wanted to mention that my directing partner, Abby Epstein’s brother, Andrew Epstein, runs something called Cage-Free Cannabis, and you should know about them if you don’t already. They’re all about criminal reform and getting reparations for drug crimes and getting incarcerated individuals’ sentences dropped so they can actually have lives. They do really great work