The wave of attention and controversy that inevitably follows celebrity chef Pete Evans is about to hit the Australian medical cannabis movement, raising questions over what the Hugos founder could do for the community. His presence has put doctors and activists at an impasse unlikely to be resolved.
A home-grown superchef with a perpetual tan and bone white, TV-ready teeth, Evans is producing a documentary about cannabis that – when combined with his immense online popularity – could make him the public face of the cannabis movement in the country.
The controversy first began when it was announced that Evans would be speaking at United in Compassion‘s cannabis symposium, an annual event started by perhaps the most widely respected figure in the country’s medical cannabis scene, Lucy Haslam.
Evans, it was understood, was making a documentary, and there was no better spot for him to pick the minds of some of the most knowledgeable cannabis professionals in the world than at the Symposium.
And while the chef’s inclusion sparked a flurry of interest from the general public, health professionals were less enthused. Evans had just been in the news for endorsing the podcast of a prominent American anti-vaxxer and concern grew that his relationship with the event may do more damage than good.
Almost as soon as the announcement was made, UIC declared he would no longer be speaking at the Symposium. He would, however, be available in another room to film scenes and interviews.
“Where his cannabis documentary is concerned we are very much taking a watching brief, having allowed him – as a programme-maker – to record and interview global experts at our recent Symposium,” said a spokesperson for UIC. “We will therefore be able to comment further on this only after having seen the film once completed and broadcast.”
When UIC first announced its decision on Facebook the organisation said the chef had an “untenable position on what is a serious health issue.”
“Our objective is and has always been to offer factual, clinically sound evidence as to the safety and efficacy of cannabis and cannabis products for medicinal use – a purpose from which we will not be diverted,” read the statement.
Evans first shared the news he was making a new documentary with his followers in February. Posting a photo from the Netflix LA office on his Facebook, his announcement came at the end of a three week tour of Canada and the US. A Netflix spokesperson said in a statement that it did not commission the documentary, but refused to comment further on whether it would host or promote the film.
In 2018 Netflix faced calls to pull Evans’ last documentary, ‘The Magic Pill’. The film included case studies that implied a ketogenic diet could reduce tumour size, treat autism and cure asthma, leading the then-president of the Australian Medical Association to say the film would be the “least likely to contribute to public health.”
At the time, Evans responded to the AMA blacklisting his film by accusing the medical body of having an interest in keeping people unhealthy. A spokesperson for the association said it could not comment on Evans’ cannabis film itself but pointed towards multiple other statements they had made calling out the chef for his unsubstantiated positions on various medical issues.
All very normal stuff in the world of Pete Evans.
The chef’s campaigns against fluoridation and his calls for new parents to feed their children bone broth (read: actually extremely dangerous for babies) is just the tip of the iceberg. Evans has flirted with the anti-vaxxer movement and posts on Instagram about how much he enjoys staring directly into the sun. He also famously believes that sunscreen is poisonous. Earlier this year, his branded alkaline water was deemed to breach the food and beverages advertising code for claiming it deactivated peptides in the stomach called pepsin and increased bone density.
To all of this, Evans would say he and his positions are misunderstood and misrepresented, but Australia‘s health professionals are less understanding of a man they declare to be a pseudoscience profiteer.
Despite the endless controversy, the cult of Evans has remained largely impervious to criticism. He currently sits at over a million followers across his social media platforms and has a series of successful books published. ‘The Magic Pill’, while controversial, was successful. Channel 7, which airs ‘My Kitchen Rules’, co-hosted by Evans, has refused to discipline the chef in the past.
While Evans’ cannabis documentary does not yet having a release date, the possibility of the immensely popular TV host and chef appearing on The Project, or breakfast television, to discuss the benefits of cannabis is a reality the movement has to reckon with.
Evans’ 1.5 million followers and brand represent an enormous opportunity for the community at achieving mainstream exposure. There has long been a space in Australia for a spokesperson with existing fame to lead the medicinal cannabis conversation. So far, that mantle has been taken by Olivia Newton-John, who says she uses home grown cannabis to treat pain caused by breast cancer.
But Olivia Newton John, as real and genuine as she is, can’t compete with the staggering reach that Pete Evans has.
So what do medicinal cannabis campaigners do when the best shot they have at big mainstream attention comes in the form of a dude who says sunscreen is bad, endorses anti-vax podcasts, wants a flouride-free world, and says babies should go on paleo?
In many ways the current campaigning by medicinal cannabis activists in Australia has been effective. The discussion around cannabis regulation in Australia has never been more prominent. But the fledgling industry has routinely struggled to get major party recognition beyond a few PR snapshots or individual MPs sounding off on their thoughts. Legal access to the drug is still a major issue.
It is a movement forever burdened by unpublicised promises and pub speech agreements. Stories of discussions with politicians in airports or private boardroom meetings are often rumoured but rarely substantiated. Even when footage emerges of political leaders agreeing with the need for reforms – as was the case with Bill Shorten – little is done in a formal capacity. Bill Shorten might say he wants to do something about medical cannabis access in Australia but the party he leads has not announced any sort of policy update addressing that fact since 2015, and the country is weeks out from a federal election.
Met with Shadow Health Minister @CatherineKingMP yesterday. Labor ‘don’t know where they will land’ on med cannabis but ‘are looking at it’. Last official statement was over 3 years ago. We need to know plans *before* election. Hope @AustralianLabor & @billshortenmp can oblige.
— United In Compassion (@UnitedInCompas1) February 14, 2019
The battle for accessible medical cannabis in Australia is the same as elsewhere: doctors and patients fighting against government regulators and politicians who insist that the War on Drugs isn’t just successful, but the only option.
And while attempts at finding middle ground between “life coach” chefs and medical professionals might have found some success recently, the drama around Pete Evans has shone a light on parts of the cannabis rights community which have largely been ignored.
Whether it wants to admit it or not, sections of the cannabis movement in Australia are tied up with other, more troubling interest groups including the controversial anti-vax movement. There is a small and active anti-vaxxer contingent in the medicinal cannabis community. It is plausible that Evans’ involvement in the space might encourage a more active presence for these elements.
To some extent, it is hard to blame many of these people for their views on government-endorsed health. They have spent much of their lives fighting a war on drugs they believe to be completely ridiculous and without merit. They have seen cannabis benefit themselves and their loved ones while it remains proscribed by the government. It’s not difficult to see why they might find common ground with anti-vaxxers.
But the strange surge in anti-vaccination rhetoric is finding airtime in the mainstream – with real world consequences.
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners has been forced to publish fact sheets for children who want to go against their parent’s wishes and be vaccinated. The World Health Organisation has listed “vaccine hesitancy” as one of the biggest global health threats for 2019.
“We need to be persuading conservative medical cannabis skeptics in the medical profession,” one doctor told me. “But they will roll around in delight that Evans is supporting this movement.”
“It is entirely possible that Evans’ film will be the greatest and most factual documentary on cannabis every produced, but it is also entirely possible that his history of pseudoscience and alternative therapy may do the movement more damage than good.”
One of the only politicians to talk with Evans about his documentary is pro-cannabis rights Reason Party leader Fiona Patten. The Victorian MP did not respond to multiple requests for comment but was forced to backtrack last month after sharing a photo of herself with Evans.
I woudn’t say we kept company. I was speaking at the conference and was asked to be interviewed about the failure of drug prohibition for a doco on cannabis.
— Fiona Patten (@FionaHPatten) April 2, 2019
Patten said she was interviewed by Evans for the documentary and took the photo of herself and the chef off of her social media after her followers’ angry reaction.
“I took it down because I did not want the excellent work the [United in Compassion] conference organisers do to be conflated with outside views.”
Patten said the Reason Party supported evidence-based policies and supported science and vaccinations “wholeheartedly.”
“Let’s be clear: I use sunscreen, I am, and always have been pro-vaccination, and have never had a bowl of bone broth.”
While it remains to be seen what impact Evans will have on public opinion about cannabis in Australia, the more scientifically-minded sections of the community have made it clear that even appearing in a photo with him can be damaging.
Others working in the industry have struggled with Evans’ intervention in the discussion, but argued that it never should have come to this. If the government was doing its job and creating a successful, profitable, and health-focused model allowing easy access to medical cannabis there would be no place for Pete Evans to inject himself into the discussion.
“People are entitled to believe what they want but not at this cost,” said one source working in the industry.
Ultimately, it is doctors who will decide whether or not to prescribe medical cannabis in Australia. That’s a reality many campaigners have reckoned with, despite the assertion that most global cannabis movements have been pushed forward by the public.
“There is a general consensus that if we don’t have doctors it won’t happen,” said one source. “But most activism and progress has been patient driven. Change must happen at a real, political level and so far it has not.”
It’s estimated somewhere around 100,000 Australians use cannabis medicinally and only 1% of them have legal access, two years after legal pathways were established. That alone indicates a serious problem with the system.
Still, Evans has attacked the issue of cannabis regulation and prohibition full throttle. Reports have circulated he is working on a cannabis cook book and his social media regularly espouses the plants benefits as well as seminars for the drug.
Whatever the documentary looks like and however it chooses to cover cannabis and the research around it, many doctors won’t budge when it comes to Paleo Pete, judging cannabis’ potential association with a “charlatan” to be more damaging than any conceivable progress he makes.
“Suggesting Pete Evans will be good for Australia’s medicinal cannabis industry is like being told it’s ‘lucky’ when a bird shits on you,” Sydney GP Brad McKay told me.
“Your shirt might suddenly get a bit of attention but it’s a long time before you get the stain out.”
Pete Evans did not respond to multiple requests for comment.