Helen Kapalos’ documentary, A Life of its Own, introduces viewers to a cast of everyday people from around Australia and beyond who are all facing a similar struggle: getting legal access to cannabis.
Helen first began covering cannabis back in 2014, when she was senior correspondent on Channel Seven’s Sunday Night. At the time, she was reporting on families buying cannabis on the black market for their sick children.
Over the years, Helen’s reporting has seen her become a staunch advocate for safe, reliable access to cannabis for those who need it.
Josie Tutty (Cannabiz): Joining me now we have Australian journalist and television presenter, Helen Kapalos. Helen began reporting on medicinal cannabis during her time as a senior correspondent on Seven Sunday Night, which eventually led to the creation of a Life of Its Own. A documentary she produced, wrote and directed about medicinal cannabis. Welcome Helen.
Helen Kapalos: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Josie: So maybe just to kick off, at the time of recording, we’re just sort of slowly emerging out of lockdown. How has it been for you?
Helen: You mean being in isolation? It’s been interesting. There’s definitely an introspective part of my personality that’s really enjoyed this. There’s a part of me thinking, how will I get back out there again, but also I’m really keen to kind of rejoin the community again too.
Josie: Yeah. And how has it been doing the sort of role that you do, when you’re stuck inside? Has it kind of hindered some of your projects that you had going on?
Helen: Yeah. It definitely has hindered things. I think it’s hard to personalize the online experience in the way that we’d like to. There’s so many more tangible elements of how we communicate that you can’t read online and that don’t translate, but at the same time, the things that fall away in terms of that personal life experience. Sometimes you gain more through another medium, so the online experience, I think has also given an extra dimension that you don’t always have. Definitely more present, that’s for sure.
Josie: Yeah, for sure. So you made your documentary back in 2016. I just wondered how you thought the cannabis industry has changed since then? And also whether Australia’s perception of cannabis has changed at all since you made your film?
Helen: I think there is a lot more awareness about medicinal cannabis than there was back then. I think back then there was more controversy and it was at the beginning of its, I guess journey in terms of how it was navigating through the media. So when the topic itself was approached, it would either be received in two ways, by a well informed public that might’ve already been across its benefits through the treatment of their children or a partner or through understanding its treatment, whether it was through an international context or knowing about the subject. Or it was just absolutely embedded in a past controversy, which was the way that we traditionally saw marijuana, which was in a way that was the demonic kind of portrayal of the drug that was pretty strongly linked to schizophrenia or psychotic disorders etc.
Helen: Or something that was recreationally abused by younger men or by the masses, if you like. So one of those things that was for good reason, I suppose, and this whole swathe of medicinal qualities and its healing properties was buried as a result of that. So I think for me the documentary most definitely unearthed a greater education that was my sole purpose in going forward. But at the time we just had people in either camp. Those that kind of were ahead of the curve and understood a bit about it or those that were still stuck in a very old paradigm about what marijuana was.
Josie: And I think, and it’s something that you touch on in the documentary, I think when you hear especially when it comes to kids, giving cannabis to kids, you’re just like: “What? Kids? They’re going to be high.” It almost sounds crazy, but then when you, as you explained in the documentary, they’re getting very low doses of THC and it’s primarily CBD and so therefore they’re not going to get high and that’s kind of a misconception.
Helen: Yeah. I think that was probably the greatest eye opener for me when I first embarked on the subject itself, that I didn’t really understand the context in which it was given to children or young adults. I never knew that there was an elixir, that it was an oil-based medicine that didn’t necessarily have to involve THC. It did though, in some cases have the blend of THC oil, but in ways that didn’t hamper, I guess, or didn’t trigger a psychotic illness, in a way that was manageable.
Helen: I think that’s where I really understood too, that medicine was supposed to be self titrated. So back in the day when it was sold over the counter, it was determined by how much each body could handle and that’s definitely the case with children. So you’re giving them an oil, a cannabis oil, that’s just CBD, well, that’s not going to have anything other than a drowsy effect, but if it does have [inaudible] traces of THC, then it’s about giving them smaller dosages. And so what we traditionally see with marijuana, large doses of THC, and that’s the only context in which we can see that.
Josie: And that’s kind of where the whole psychosis and a lot of the fear that has perpetrated has come from. And I think it was there in the documentary, you mentioned about schizophrenia and how a lot of the research that has been done on that was to do with those strains that were a lot stronger. And that would just not come into a medical context. What was your perception of cannabis before you even started doing your reporting back in the day?
Helen: So my perception about cannabis when I first started reporting was definitely mired in that old notion of it being something that triggered a psychosis or that was used in copious amounts and led to people being out of it or a loss of the senses, the degradation of the senses. So it was something that I also had really strong views about and I saw it only in its stereotypical portrayal. I didn’t see a story beyond that because I had no experience. The only other context that I understood and only, marginally I guess, was that I knew people would take it for pain relief, but I just imagined that someone was having a joint and that it helped relieve some nausea and some pain. But I didn’t understand as a whole really, the whole reason behind that as well. So that’s how I saw it. And so really I felt quite reluctant to take on the subject itself.
Josie: It must’ve been quite eye-opening for you, just meeting all the different people. The stories in that, in your reporting, are just incredible.
Helen: Yeah. It’s just everyday mums and dads, sourcing or making cannabis oil themselves and going to these great lengths, and I thought, “wow, where have all these people been hiding?” And I didn’t understand that there was a scientific body behind this that was doing really interesting research. I didn’t understand that it was a growing area of medical research and that there were actually really legitimate trials taking place around the world.
Josie: And I think when you do start to see those everyday Australians, for want of a better word, that’s when people really start to engage with it and think, “well, they’re sort of just like me, they’re the everyday person and they’re doing it”. And I think that really does help people understand the context of it.
Helen: Yeah. It changes the game. It makes you understand that there’s something more to this that we aren’t as lay people aware of. And I think it’s a really exciting conversation when you’re a journalist, because journalists are all about uncovering the truth, about exposing things to society that we don’t have an awareness about. And so it was very much a parallel journey for me in the way that it was being presented. I was learning as much about this and working through all the misnomers and myths myself.
Josie: I don’t know exactly the dates, did you launch the film before the law passed in 2016 or was it around the same time?
Helen: It was before.
Josie: Before? So I just wondered how you felt about the law changing, because obviously I’ve spoken to [cannabis campaigner] Lucy Haslam and she has some quite strong views, at the time she felt like it was a great thing to happen and then eventually we started to realize that access is actually quite difficult to achieve for a lot of people. How do you feel about access today?
Helen: I have a really similar view. So my view was that when the film was launched, it was fantastic in terms of, I saw it as a really good educational tool, when we did the story on Sunday Night, I understood that we needed to raise more awareness and let people know the full context of medicinal cannabis. So I was really pleased that there was some traction in parliament and that there was a growing awareness in the healthcare industry and among doctors as well and researchers and scientists. So that was really pleasing to see and also to say that the public was beginning to understand and embrace the idea of [inaudible] health care benefits, and also really that they [inaudible] in their health care and that this was a viable alternative that hadn’t been fully explored and, I suppose, explained or presented to the public in the way that it should have been.
Helen: I took great comfort knowing that, and I think that it was a very energizing time for a lot of us to see some traction, but then we started to see, “hang on”. There’s another big hurdle and that big hurdle is access. And the really rich and very complicated regulatory environment that exists and it still exists. I think to me, it’s sort of disappointing to see that’s still the case. So there’s a really great perception out there at times that look, we’ve come so far and it’s legal and people just think that it’s really easily available, but it’s not. It’s a lot more complicated than we think, even though there are more people being able to access the prescriptions and more doctors giving prescriptions, it’s still a really complicated topic. And the way that it’s presented by our federal health bodies also, in a way really diminishes the really strong research and body of evidence that exists behind offering people that really viable, incredible alternative healthcare, optional treatment.
Josie: Now, New Zealand is having a referendum towards the end of this year for recreational use of cannabis. I just wondered how you felt, almost the tension between the medicinal side and the recreational side works. And whether if they do vote yes, if that will be a positive thing for the medicinal side of things, or if it really doesn’t actually make that much difference?
Helen: That’s a really tough question because, you will see it play out depending on the culture of the country as well and the culture of the communities. And so it will be really interesting to see what takes place in New Zealand. I mean, Colorado would probably be a really interesting example because, of course, we’ve seen the industry take off there as well and it’s well known that it’s available both recreationally and through the medicinal context. And there’s been some really interesting insights that have been gleaned as a result. But again, if you chose another state in the US, it would be an entirely different story.
Helen: So it really plays out very differently in communities. How I think it will probably play out is that you might see it contained in some areas and then not in other areas. And so it’s hard to predict how that plays out in the wider context of medicinal cannabis. Look, I probably wouldn’t agree to see, I would probably not be all that comfortable about recreational use as well, just knowing that it impacts the young adolescent brain of a male or female in the way that it does. And if we don’t have someone around to really kind of guide us and navigate through that terrain, then it’s abuse can be quite detrimental. So it’s just hard to know, isn’t it? I still have some conservative views around cannabis.
Josie: And if it’s a no, do you think it would make any impact here as well? Or do you really think the two countries are quite separate?
Helen: No. Well, that’s a good question, but I think it might have some impact. I don’t know. Is it a hot topic right now. I think it will become hot again, because we’re so mired in the Covid-19, post-pandemic environment. So where’s that, how’s that going to play out? Medicinal cannabis will absolutely have a resurgence again as well. I think it will be because economically we’ll see some interesting activity on the stock market and then there’ll be another new wave and buzz about it. If it’s a no, it might play into the hands… With this current government, it will be really interesting to see, I think there’ll be a much more conservative approach to it and that might not be a great thing for Australia.
Josie: Okay. What does the future of your cannabis reporting look like? Have you got any plans for another documentary or anything upcoming?
Helen: Yeah. Look, the future is that I’m looking at a part two. I think the part two, the obvious part of where this whole journey might take me would be what’s happening with Big Pharma. And I think that has something to do with the regulatory environment. It has something to do with access and has something to do with opioid addiction, with all sorts of different therapies that are partly taken care of by Big Pharma, that are also translating into big dollars. And I think unfortunately those profits are often put ahead of people’s health and wellbeing. And it takes a really strong government to work through that and pass that as well. And to be open minded enough, it was really fascinating for me to see the medicinal cannabis story play out in Israel. I really thought it was a stellar example of how this might be able to work. It will be wonderful to see other countries follow suit.
Josie: Yeah. That was a really eye opening part of the documentary for me. I think when you went to Israel and interviewed all the scientists there, it was just so inspiring, how far forward they are compared to so many other countries. Okay. Well, I think that’s probably all we’ve got time for Helen, but thank you for joining us.
Helen: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed chatting to you. Thanks.