People are constantly asking Chelsea Leyland if she’s stoned. “It’s frustrating,” laughs the London-born, Brooklyn-based DJ and cannabis/epilepsy activist, who has been using medicinal cannabis to effectively control her epilepsy for the past two years after weaning herself off the aggressive anti-convulsant medication prescribed by her doctor. “Being young and a DJ, people just presume I smoke a ton of weed.” Yet the core of Leyland’s passionate cannabis crusade stems from a place that is deeply personal. Her older sister Tamsin, who has a more severe form of epilepsy, lives in a full-time care facility in England, where she does not have access to medical cannabis due to legislative restrictions in the UK. The charismatic and vibrant Leyland, who was diagnosed with epilepsy as a teenager, has long used her platform to raise awareness about and normalize the often-misunderstood condition, and her dramatic success story with medical cannabis, which she credits as life-changing, inspired her to become a tireless advocate for the de-stigmatization and legalization of medical cannabis around the globe, in order to treat patients with conditions such as hers.
Capitalizing on the current cultural curiosity surrounding medical cannabis and specifically CBD, which is recommended as a salve for everything from anxiety to period cramps, she (alongside an almost entirely female film crew) is channeling her tireless passion and near-miraculous personal experience into a documentary entitled “Separating the Strains,” which juxtaposes the parallel stories of her and her sister, following the Leyland family’s ongoing struggle to get Tamsin the medicine that could potentially transform her life. Yet the ambitious documentary also widens its scope, raising awareness about the global state of the medical cannabis industry as a whole and taking the audience on an educational journey bolstered by science-backed research. Cannabis has a complicated reputation, and the film aims to untangle it by shifting the public perception of the plant, focusing on the enduring importance of its often overlooked medical potential. Leyland and her crew are currently raising money via Kickstarter to travel to Israel and the United States to complete the documentary, anticipating a release date sometime next year. She was kind enough to chat with us about her own journey with medicinal cannabis, the impact she’s hoping the film will have on legislation and beyond, and the importance of speaking up in the face of stigmas.
Their Kickstarter campaign is down to the wire, so donate what you can to support this incredible cause and get this groundbreaking documentary made! Find more information and donate here.
Live FAST: Hi Chelsea! Tell us a little about who you are and what you do.
Chelsea Leyland: I’m a DJ and a cannabis and epilepsy activist. I’m currently co-producing and co-directing a documentary about the medical cannabis landscape in the UK and the U.S. with a particular focus on epilepsy and how cannabis can positively affect it. The documentary is titled “Separating the Strains,” and we’re currently raising money via Kickstarter to continue filming it.
LF: You have a unique vantage point because you use medicinal cannabis to treat your own epilepsy. How has your personal journey influenced your activism?
CL: It’s at the core of everything I do. I have a form of epilepsy called juvenile myclonic epilepsy, but my elder sister Tamsin has a much more severe form of epilepsy. She lives in full time care and has anywhere from 10-50 seizures a day, so I probably would be on this mission even without being affected by it myself. My sister is the driving force behind everything I do.
To have had such an incredible transformation with my own health two years ago, when I was lucky enough to wean myself off of all pharmaceutical medications, propelled me into the medicinal cannabis world, whereas before I was focusing more on educating people about epilepsy as a condition and trying to de-stigmatize it by using my platform to raise awareness. It’s been quite an organic progression for me, yet my sister, who is in the UK, still doesn’t have access to it. That’s the premise of our documentary: two sisters, one who has access to medicinal cannabis and one who doesn’t, and the juxtaposition between our parallel stories. That’s the nucleus of our film. Everything else builds out from there because it signifies the wider scope and the broader battle of the healthcare system in general.
LF: What are you hoping to convey to audiences through the documentary?
CL: I’m hoping to help de-stigmatize both medical cannabis and epilepsy and educate our audience about the condition and the ways cannabis can be used to treat it. Using science to back that up is the most important thing we can do right now. There is so much information out there and people don’t know where to turn which is why it’s so important that we become a trusted source regarding medicinal cannabis and how it affects the body. We’re trying to convey the science behind it in a way that people can understand and be less intimidated by. Our director, Caroline Sharp, has a background in neuroscience, which really helps. We’re also working with an amazing composer and bringing together epileptic musicians to write the soundscape. It’s a great way to incorporate music and illustrate the condition through sound.
It’s important to note that we’re coming from a non-biased standpoint. We’re by no means trying to demonize traditional medicine. At the core, we’re taking the audience on a journey to learn and discover more about the endocannabinoid system and about how cannabinoids affect conditions like epilepsy, neurodegenerative diseases like CTE, and even opioid dependency.
LF: Tell us a little bit about your decision to wean yourself off pharmaceutical medicine – I can’t imagine that was easy.
CL: I was really lucky. When you have a medicine, whether it’s holistic or more generic, and you have success stories like that of my own, one of the big issues you come up against is that everyone else out there who suffers from something similar thinks they can just jump off their medication and do the same thing. That’s why its so important for the educational aspect to be there, because lot of people are picking up the paper and reading about this young epileptic child who came off their meds by using medical cannabis and then going the to store and buying CBD and making poor decisions.
They just rescheduled cannabis’ drug classification in the UK, which is a step in the right direction, but that doesn’t mean it will immediately be readily available. Hopefully one day it will be a treatment option, but it’s going to be a long time from now because physicians have to be educated about medical cannabis in order for them to start prescribing it. It starts with understanding just how complex this plant we’re talking about is. Everyone who is working on the film, myself included, doesn’t use cannabis recreationally – we’re all on the medicinal side of the fence. Like with any drug, cannabis can be dangerous if used incorrectly, so it’s really important to understand all sides of it.
LF: Do you feel like those misconceptions are common? Are you constantly asked about being stoned?
CL: Yes! Being young and being a DJ, everyone just presumes I smoke tons of weed. I’m not against people using it recreationally, but in order to make change you have to stay on the medicinal side. The truth is, there are a lot of conditions out there that could be helped by it. It starts with having that open conversation.
LF: That’s something you’ve been really instrumental in because you’ve been so outspoken and courageous by sharing your deeply personal story. Do you ever find it emotionally draining?
CL: It’s nice that you acknowledge that because it’s one of those things where you’re trying to do real work but the emotional and personal aspect of it makes for a more textured journey. The core of the film, and the core of everything I do, is for my sister, and my family is battling to get medicinal cannabis to her. That sort of empathetic thread makes you really sensitive, which is both a blessing and a curse. I always talk about layers of stigma because, even with a condition like epilepsy, there was a stigma that started at home. That doesn’t mean that my parents weren’t the best parents in the world, but they would say things like, “Be careful not to talk about it with people you work with because you don’t want them to judge you or treat you differently.” It’s not visible to the eye, it’s not contagious, and it’s not a disease, but most people that have it don’t talk about it, even though it’s so common. I’m trying to break down that barrier. It’s also really cathartic for me because I hid it from everyone for so many years and was suffering inside. For the longest time they would lock epileptics away, saying that they were demonic and contagious. It’s time to talk about the condition.
LF: We pass stigmas down generationally, and it takes someone like you to start the process of shattering them. How long have you been exclusively on CBD at this point?
CL: It has now been nearly two years since I’ve been off traditional medicine and on medicinal CBD. I weaned myself off my traditional anticonvulsant medication, which was very aggressive and was causing me a lot of extreme side effects, but I didn’t have any support from a doctor while I did it. It’s crazy to think about because now I have a medical marijuana card and a physician in New York who I’m able to speak to about my dosage and it’s treated like a real medicine, because it is. But if I had moved back to England, it wouldn’t be an option to even have a conversation about it with a neurologist. It changed my life, so of course all I want to do is spread awareness. There are so many sick people out there and they deserve the right to know about it. Why is it being kept from us? A lot of it is about money and power and the hypocrisy of the government.
LF: You’re a DJ, activist, model, radio host, and filmmaker. How do you balance it all? What keeps you going?
CL: It’s funny because my work as an activist adds balance to my life. I felt very unbalanced before. Growing up with my sister’s suffering as my home base, when I got into the fashion world it all just felt a bit silly. I felt like I didn’t belong. Now, having this activist side of my life means that when I go do a DJ or fashion job, I’m able to just enjoy it and accept it as another part of me. In terms of my own inner equilibrium: exercise, yoga, and meditation.
LF: Aside from donating to the Kickstarter, which everyone should do, what would you recommend for people who are inspired by your story and want to get involved?
CL: Something important I’ve realized is change starts from the bottom. People think change starts from the top down, but it starts from the bottom up. Everyone is investing in the cannabis space now – I spoke at the biggest cannabis conference in the UK in London recently and I felt very privileged to be asked to participate, but in my opinion it was a little too white and it was a little too suit-y. A lot of people are about the money and the business and it’s important to remember that it starts with the patients. Because sick children have had to suffer so much, it has put pressure on the government and created change. Figure out your local laws and write your senators. People underestimate the power of that. Share personal stories. At the end of the day, it’s about human rights and people asking for the medicine that they deserve.
LF: What made you fall in love with DJing?
CL: It’s ironic, a DJ with epilepsy, because of all the late night and flashing lights. Making people dance for a living is incredible. I think music is a universal language and it’s such a powerful tool to shift something within someone, whether it’s a mood or triggering a memory. I like being in the driver’s seat to take people on a journey for the night. It’s a responsibility but it’s very fun.
LF: What’s next for you? What are you currently excited about?
CL: Right now, the documentary is my life. I’m so excited to see how things unfold. It’s also really exciting to be part of a new industry and see the market open up from a business standpoint. There’s also a social justice element to all of this, which we touch on in the documentary. We know that a lot of people have been innocently imprisoned because of this plant and we see this as an opportunity to give back to communities that have been so affected by the criminalization of cannabis.
Cannabis has the potential to be a more inclusive industry. It actually has the highest number of female executives of any industry, so I think to be a woman working in this space is exciting. People always ask why there are so many females involved and I like to say it’s because we use the female part of the plant to extract cannabis. My director would hate me for saying that because it sounds so hippy dippy. She’s so grounded and rational and I’m up with the moon and the stars. She keeps me in check.
LF: You can’t do an interview about CBD without dropping some hippy dippy vibes. One final question: how fast do you live?
CL: Way too fast. My dad is always telling me to bring it down a few notches.