They say ‘don’t shoot the messenger’, but that really depends who the messenger is, and how much damage they’re doing. Emma Castle finds out whether celebrity chef Pete Evans is a hindrance or a help in the crusade to raise awareness around medicinal cannabis.
Former My Kitchen Rules judge and cannabis advocate Pete Evans says and does some stupid things. The charge sheet is long, but his most recent indiscretion – posting a neo-Nazi symbol on social media – saw him promptly dropped by a bunch of brands including Coles, Woolies, Channel Ten and his book publisher.
He was previously fined A$25,000 by the Therapeutic Goods Administration for promoting a device he claimed could cure COVID-19. He has copped heat from the Australian Medical Association for his claims on fluoride and calcium, is a prominent anti-vaxxer and has outraged parenting experts by promoting the paleo diet to babies. That’s not to mention allegations of holocaust denial.
And just in case we need to remind ourselves, Evans is a celebrity chef, not a doctor.
But that hasn’t stopped him making a documentary about cannabis – The Magic Plant – speaking at industry events, writing a cannabis cookbook and generally manoeuvring to position himself as the face of cannabis in Australia.
And while he says and does some stupid things, not everything he says and does is stupid.
Take The Magic Plant, for example. It’s a comprehensive look at the medicinal and semi-recreational cannabis scene in Australia and the US, a persuasive piece of film-making that includes testimony from numerous credible experts.
The problem is, while Evans may be on the right side of the argument about the benefits of medicinal cannabis, scientists, doctors and researchers have spent decades doing clinical studies to prove its efficacy and fight the stigma it still suffers from in some quarters.
Is that work the industry wants to put at risk by associating itself with a man making all sorts of unscientific claims in other areas?
And how do the doctors who appear in the documentary feel about it now?
Dr Janet Schloss, Clinical Research Fellow for the National Centre for Naturopathic Medicine, said she was approached to appear in the documentary at a conference.
Schloss said: “I was told it was about cannabis and what it has the ability to do, which I totally support. So the experience for me was positive as I stand behind my trial and the results we found.”
Schloss and Dr Charlie Teo conducted research into the impact of medicinal cannabis on glioblastoma.
“There is still a lot of stigma around cannabis and, if we can make clear boundaries between what is medicinal versus recreational, that will be of benefit for the medical fraternity and in politicians accepting it more,” added Schloss.
All publicity is good publicity
Dr John Teh, who appeared in the documentary and also interviewed Evans at the Australian Cannabis Summit last month, agreed.
He said: “Pete approached me about being in a documentary and I had been a cannabis doctor for about two years at that time. He came down to the clinic and quite a few slices of that conversation made it into the movie.”
“I was quite happy with the way the movie portrayed the whole of cannabis. It was quite honest. It was informative and showed the pitfalls and the positives.
He added: “Medicinal cannabis is becoming more widely accepted in society with the general population – I saw a poll recently that found 50% of people said we should legalise it for recreational use. Public sentiment is definitely very positive towards the medicine because patients’ families are seeing good results.”
Teh remains unphased about any controversy surrounding Evans.
“Pete’s a controversial person. Whatever he does seems to cause controversy. I’m not really worried about that because cannabis is already a little bit controversial in the eyes of some sectors of society, so it’s inevitable. To use social media terms, ‘haters gonna hate’. In reality, this medicine is amazing and we’re changing lives day by day.
“We need to bring attention to medicinal cannabis and cannabis used properly, and The Magic Plant is a great step on that journey.”
Others in the industry prefer to keep Evans at arm’s length. Medicinal Cannabis Industry Association (MCIA) chair Peter Crock told Cannabiz: “The MCIA has never had any association with Pete Evans, and he would never be given a platform to talk at our conference.”
And while the participants in The Magic Plant Cannabiz spoke to stand by the documentary, there are risks in working with controversial celebrities.
Cannabiz co-founder and founder of marketing and branding agency Klick X, Kim McKay, advises her clients on how to manage celebrity endorsements and the fallout when they bring unwanted publicity to their brand.
She warned: “There is an inherent danger in any celebrity endorsement. Celebrities are people and people do dumb shit sometimes. Because many traditional marketing channels are not available to cannabis brands, influencer and celebrity marketing is one option that everyone seems to jump to, so it’s best to do it right.”
McKay’s advice is to figure out if the celebrity is relevant to your audience.
She added: “Take a deep dive into their online presence and really understand their tone of voice and beliefs and ask yourself – does that align with your brand?”
McKay said huge follower numbers don’t mean huge (or the right) reach and warned brands should have a crisis communications plan in place should there be a backlash to anything the celebrity says or does.
Finally, she said: “Have a killer contract in place that ensures you’re legally covered if things go bad.”
So who should be the face of medicinal cannabis in Australia? Should it be the patients who have benefited from it? The doctors who prescribe it? Or is it okay for anyone who believes in its benefits to stand up and be counted?
Medicinal cannabis has a legitimacy problem
Cannabis consultant and Cannabiz editor-at-large Rhys Cohen is unequivocal.
He said: “In my opinion, we should all stay well clear of Pete Evans. I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone would think having this man associated with our cause is a net gain. Medicinal cannabis does not suffer from obscurity. It suffers from a lack of legitimacy.
“People are afraid to speak with their doctors about it and doctors are afraid to consider it. Deliberately feeding the controversy around cannabis will only harm patient access.
“You don’t improve the legitimacy of a cause like medicinal cannabis by choosing to associate it with the likes of Pete Evans,” added Cohen.
Whether you love Pete Evans or loathe him, in a democracy everyone has the right to free speech – even if what they’re saying isn’t backed by science.
But in an industry with a tendency to drink its own Kool Aid and make optimistic claims about what medicinal cannabis can treat and cure, it’s critical that the messaging around it is factually accurate, backed by evidence and delivered by credible experts.
If society at large – and the parliamentary officers who represent it – don’t get the right message, from the right person, at the right time, what hope has the industry got of garnering the necessary legislative support for drug reform and patient access?
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