HEALTH

Helen Kapalos' Documentary Is What The Medicinal Cannabis Debate Needs

She left commercial TV to be the voice of Australians suffering in silence.

31/10/2016 3:12 PM AEDT | Updated 31/10/2016 9:12 PM AEDT
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When Helen Kapalos announced she was leaving her prime time role with Channel Seven's flagship current affair program, Sunday Night, it sent shock waves through the media landscape.

With 23 years experience in broadcast journalism, Kapalos had one of the most sought after gigs in commercial television -- a cutthroat industry driven by ratings and its predisposition for younger, more photogenic reporters.

"Well-meaning colleagues questioned my decision and there were certainly comments around whether I'd considered I might not ever get another job in media," Kapalos told The Huffington Post Australia.

"No one was really supportive of it," Kapalos said.

Though Kapalos is the first to admit that had it been just one year prior, she too would have expressed the same concerns.

"Many of us spend a lot of our media career looking over our shoulder wondering what the next job will be and whether we'll have our contracts renewed," Kapalos said.

Channel 7
Helen Kapalos during Sunday Night's interview with Dan Haslam.

The difference was that Kapalos had crossed paths with Dan Haslam, a 24-year-old from Tamworth who had been fighting inoperable bowel cancer for four years.

As it would happen, Sunday Night had sent Kapalos to interview Haslam, who was forced to break the law to source medicinal cannabis after torturous and painful chemotherapy treatment. Now, he was advocating for the decriminalisation of marijuana for medicinal use.

Haslam's father was a retired police officer that had spent much of his career working to eradicate the drug, but like so many parents of children who are suffering, desperation lead him and his wife, Lucy, down a path they never would have imagined.

"Dan was just a country kid who found himself in a very unlikely position -- and that was the common theme with this story -- everybody I encountered were unlikely advocates for medical marijuana," Kapalos said.

A Life Of Its Own
Dan Haslam and his wife, Alyce.

In 2015, Haslam lost his battle with cancer.

One month later, Kapalos quit her high profile media job.

In both his life and death, Haslam became the catalyst for Kapalos' documentary, "A Life of Its Own", -- a film that provides clarity and understanding around medicinal cannabis -- and something she describes as coinciding with a point in her life that she felt was an inevitable exit from media.

"I wanted to tell Dan's story -- the whole story -- and the bigger issues that existed within it," Kapalos said.

"I love long form [storytelling] and it's why I had gotten into journalism in the first place. I wanted to give other families a voice," Kapalos said.

After her resignation, Kapalos spent 18 months researching and meeting families on a similar journey. She delved into the stigma and controversy associated with medicinal cannabis and spoke to experts around the world about the need for more education.

"We've placed recreational marijuana in the same category as medicinal marijuana and they're two very different things," Kapalos said.

A Life Of Its Own
Epilepsy patients use medical cannabis in oil form, placed on the tongue for treatment.

"There's a very distinct reality about both of them and the first one I describe to people is that we're talking about really different products and quantums," Kapalos said.

The documentary casts a sharp focus on the influence "big pharma" has had on this debate and questions why there isn't a hunger for more education from the side of medical professionals.

"It is hard to understand when you see first-hand a child with epilepsy go from hundreds of seizures down to one or two, when the other option is heavy duty medication like steroids and so on that have various side effects like blindness and even brain damage," Kapalos said.

While frustrating at times, thanks to the stigma that exists and not helped by the lack of funding and research, change is happening. Slowly.

Earlier this year we saw Victorian premier Daniel Andrews announce that kids with severe epilepsy would be the first beneficiaries of Victoria's nation-leading medical cannabis program.

Following Haslam's death, New South Wales premier Mike Baird who had met him personally announced plans for a clinical trial of medical marijuana for a range of conditions.

A Life Of Its Own
Daisha's miracle response to medical cannabis is featured in the documentary.

On Sunday, it was announced that businesses around Australia can now apply for a licence to produce cannabis legally for medicinal purposes under the Narcotics Drugs Amendment Act 2016.

Since the release of the documentary, personal stories of struggle have become permeated in Kapalos' everyday reality. The night before our interview, she had been answering an email from a mother whose young child has multiple brain tumors.

"It was past midnight but I thought, if I don't respond that's one more night of anguish for this beautiful mother," Kapalos said.

The documentary has also lead to another job for Kapalos -- chair of Victoria's Multicultural Commission -- where she can continue advocating and giving a voice to disadvantaged communities.

While no longer on the telly reporting the latest news story, in a way, Kapalos is more visible than ever.

"I was at my local coffee shop this morning and the barista told me that he'd seen the documentary. He had epilepsy and had been on medication for years. He told me, 'it really touched my heart'," Kapalos said.

"Another woman then stood up and said she'd also seen it. She thanked me because her child has autism," Kapalos said.

Supplied
Kapalos said the documentary has been a learning curve, but also a journey of empowerment.

It's little moments like this that cement Kapalos' decision to walk away and forge a new path.

"In a way, it became a path of freedom, a path that was difficult at times financially but ultimately, the start of a wonderful adventure," Kapalos said.

She recalls the early support of her family and friends.

"My dad was one of the first people who said to me 'this is going to be the most meaningful thing you do,'" Kapalos said.

Something tells us this is just the start.

A Life Of Its Own, is released via Demand.film. This 'cinema on demand' platform allows everyday Australians to hire their local cinema for free and sell tickets via social media to one-off screenings of independent and niche movies. It's just like being given the remote control of your local cinema.

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