Journalist Helen Kapalos quit her job to investigate medicinal marijuana
Australian journalist Helen Kapalos quit her job to pursue a story she couldn't forget. The result is the movie-length documentary A Life Of Its Own: The Truth About Medical Marijuana on Choice TV.
"It's a lifetime story for me," says Kapalos. "It is not just the story of a lifetime. It is a story that will stay with me for life."
A journalist with more than 20 years' experience under her belt, Kapalos was working for Channel Seven's flagship current affairs show, Sunday Night, when she was sent to interview Dan Haslam, 24, who had been fighting inoperable bowel cancer for four years.
"When I first went into the story, I definitely had that mind-set of, 'I know what this story is all about. It's just about people smoking joints to relieve pain'," Kapalos says.
"I had a really strong mind-set about the very negative effects of cannabis and I also never saw the distinction. No one had ever properly explained the distinction in the media between medicinal and recreational."
Chemotherapy left Dan in pain and unable to eat. Then he tried medicinal cannabis and within days was eating steak and eggs.
His father, Lou, was a retired drug squad detective who never expected to become his son's dealer – but faced with the effect the drug had on his son, he made that leap.
In February 2015, Dan died and a month later Kapalos announced her resignation from Seven. Her Sunday Night report, she felt, was just the beginning. There was a bigger story and she needed to tell it.
"I was incredibly distressed when Dan passed away. I had grown really close to him over that time and I realised that I'd gotten closer to this story than any other story I'd ever done," she says, adding she was also not happy with the way Sunday Night followed up on her report.
That story drew a huge response from viewers with almost three million taking part in a phone poll on whether the use of medicinal cannabis should be legalised.
"Ninety-six per cent were in favour of medicinal cannabis when we first did the story.
"I thought, 'This is something I've never seen before'. I thought, 'Is there something bigger here that we have yet to unearth?'," Kapalos says.
"What ended up happening with Sunday Night – a big-budget current affairs show – is that it went to a different place.
"It went to following the raids, the more sensational avenues and angles pursued in the story, rather than looking at why so many people are interested."
The initial story had put Kapalos in touch with other families who were convinced the benefits of medicinal cannabis were not just restricted to pain relief for cancer patients.
There was strong anecdotal evidence it could help reduce seizures in epilepsy sufferers.
People with autism, multiple sclerosis and other neurological diseases had also claimed to have found it beneficial.
So she decided to investigate further and document her work with a self-funded documentary.
"I always wanted to tell stories with the most truthful lens that I could, and what I mean by that is having as much integrity as possible and being able to control the content in a way that I haven't been able to before because I was always subject to somebody's editorial influence," she says.
However, Kapalos did not realise just how high the cost would be.
Her initial estimate of $20,000 spiralled to more than $200,000 and there were some weeks when she had to choose between eating and making the documentary.
"My sister said to me last week, 'I don't care if you don't get a cent back for this documentary, it's the best thing you've ever done in your life'. I thought, 'That's really cool. I like to have someone say that'."
Since the documentary was released last year, the Australian government has made medicinal cannabis available legally for some patients but Kapalos says there is a long way to go.
"There's a number of licences that have been issued, but there were only 23 prescribing doctors at last count which is not many," she says.
"Doctors themselves have their own prejudices about medicinal cannabis and cannabis as an illicit substance. Even though we've seen some fantastic movement in Australia, we're still a long way off really seeing it available in the widespread fashion we've been led to believe it is."
A Life Of Its Own: The Truth About Medical Marijuana, Choice, Sunday April 30.
- TV Guide