“I just want it all to hurry up. It’s really frustrating,” says Chelsea Leyland. The 31-year-old British-born DJ, model and activist is on her way back from the Glastonbury music festival. And she’s talking about cannabis, or, more specifically, medical cannabis legislation in the UK.
Leyland, a Simone Rocha-loving fashion enthusiast, has been working on a documentary for the past 18 months called “Separating the Strains”, and as part of her advocacy has travelled between the US and UK speaking with cannabis growers, doctors and activists, while also campaigning for medical cannabis to be made more readily available to patients in the UK. It’s an in-depth study of the cannabis climate, both socially and politically, and a debut for Leyland, who has never previously produced a film.
Why is she doing it? She suffers from a form of epilepsy. “I started having myoclonic jerks [a form of seizure] when I was 13,” she says of the condition that was first diagnosed in her mid-teens. “I was 15 when I had my first tonic clonic seizure, the most severe type, where you convulse.” After her diagnosis she came to dread the evenings, when tiredness would set in and she was most prone to seizures. Travel became near impossible unless she carried her medication with her at all times.
The medication made Leyland feel ill and depressed. It caused her personality to change. “I compare it to being held hostage,” says Leyland, “I lived in fear of my condition, every second of every day. I couldn’t not take my medication because my brain was my reminder, whenever I got very tired I could feel it.”
Then she discovered CBD oil. (CBD is the cannabis derivative cannabidiol, which contains very little or minute trace amounts of THC, the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis.) And everything changed.
“I woke up having tried it for the first time and realised I had forgotten to take my medicine, I had never forgotten that before. I also felt totally normal, and so I continued to experiment and self-medicate — against the wishes of my family and doctor I might add. It felt like a veil was finally being lifted, my world changed. I’ve not had one seizure since, not one,” she says.
“I started documenting my experiences on Instagram and the response was overwhelming,” says Leyland of how her personal experience led her to become one of the UK’s most prolific campaigners for cannabis. “I had people all over the globe asking me questions: what was I taking? How much? Who was my doctor? How did I wean off my non-convulsion medication? I started to realise not only how uneducated people were but how great the need for reliable information on cannabis was.”
That’s when the concept for the documentary was born. “It made me realise how uneducated I was. I needed to be more responsible with my platform and voice. I’m not a trained doctor, I can’t give medical advice.”
Whether you agree with cannabis for medical use or recreationally, it has lately rushed into fashionability. Last month Apple BeatsX by Dre hosted a four-course CBD-infused seafood dinner in London. Earlier this year Kim Kardashian threw a CBD-themed baby shower to celebrate her son Psalm West. Cannabis e-tailers such as the US-based Dosist will ship products across the US and Canada. E-tailer The Chillery distributes cannabis wellness products in the UK. There are cannabis-focused fashion and lifestyle magazines, such as New York-based Gossamer, and a cannabis pharmacy is soon to open in London’s Marylebone.
Walk into any Holland & Barrett or Boots and you can find cannabis beauty, cosmetic and wellness products from face serums and shampoos to moisturisers and deodorants. You can even buy CBD oil-infused drinks from companies such as Botanic Lab, who have over 2,000 stockists, mainly within the UK.
Pure CBD is legal in the UK and not classified as a controlled substance. However, due to complex laws and a lack of legal clarity many CBD retailers commonly either misinterpret the law or abide by their own rules. Leyland’s main interests lie with medical CBD, which is currently not widely or readily available to NHS patients; to obtain a medical product licence, cannabis companies must go through an incredibly laborious and expensive process.
So what is the difference between pharmaceutical-grade CBD and the kind found in high-street stores? “When it’s pharmaceutical grade there are rigorous standards and the product has been thoroughly tested by a third party lab for microbials, pesticides and heavy metals. The product is also consistent batch to batch, which as a patient is obviously important,” says Leyland.
“I love how more people are talking about cannabis because that means less stigma becomes attached to it,” says Leyland of cannabis’s fashionability. “But there’s also a danger in that. People need to know how to navigate cannabis and CBD correctly. There is a lot of misinformation out there. I always say that cannabis should be treated like a drug. It must be regulated and you need to feel informed when taking it.”
She’s also sceptical of store-bought products. “What you are buying in the UK has been derived from hemp so there is little to no THC deepening in the product and a lot of these products contain little to no CBD. They do not offer a cannabinoid and terpene analysis, which is important to understand.”
The legal cannabis industry is now one of the biggest potential new markets. According to Euromonitor, the global legal marijuana market size is expected to reach $166bn by the end of 2025. In Europe the current market value is €18bn, which is set to rise to €123bn by 2028, and the European Cannabis Report claims there is a 60-70 per cent chance all cannabis will be legalised in the next three years. Even the Church of England announced in January it would be investing part of its £12.6bn portfolio in cannabis.
“People call the industry the wild wild west because there is no law-enforced system for quality control; the industry is self-regulated,” says Leyland. “Reputable growers and producers now get products tested via third-party labs to prove product quality. But many cheap brands do not test for this. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff discovered in certain brands, it’s worrying.”
Leyland hopes her documentary will act as a catalyst for further cannabis reform, making it readily available for patients in the UK. “While medical cannabis is available in 33 states of the US, in the UK there are only a small number of people on the NHS roster allowed medical grade cannabis,” she says. Leyland, who now resides in New York, has been given a medical card that allows her to pick up medical-grade marijuana and CBD when she needs it. “Parliament has lied to the people saying medical marijuana is available in the UK. It just isn’t,” says Leyland. A law passed in October 2018 stated that expert doctors in the UK could issue prescriptions for cannabis-based medicines when they agreed that patients could benefit from treatment. The conditions listed by then home secretary Sajid Javid in a statement after the parliamentary decision included epilepsy, but many patients are still denied access and treatment and, according to Leyland, “cannabis is still considered to be a last resort option”.
“My sister suffers from epilepsy as well” says Leyland. “She was diagnosed as a baby, and is now 36. She lives in care and can have up to 100 seizures a day. We were told that she would not live past her 21st birthday. But, as she is cared for in the UK, she has no access to medical cannabis or CBD, her care home and doctors refuse to prescribe it to her. I fight for legislation, campaign and educate others because I want to help her. I’m lucky, I can at least try forms of cannabis to help with my condition. And that’s a big focus in the documentary — how my life is so different to hers.”
Leyland hopes the film will be finished in six months, but she feels there is much more to do. “The conversation continues. It’s hard to know when to stop the documentary fully, I could continue, the fight is not over.”
Sisterhood of the stoner age
Are you “cana-curious”? Kate Miller and Anna Duckworth are the women behind one of the US’s most successful e-commerce platforms for cannabis, which also caters specifically for the female market (the first in the US to have done so). Miss Grass ships to all 50 states and just closed a $4m-funding round to create their own product line.
“We have an online magazine and we sell things online that are all federally legal in the US — so all cannabinoid products, mainly CBD products,” says Miller of their offering, which ranges from CBD tinctures intended to help relieve pain or stress (from $38) to miniature smoking pipe necklaces ($79) and edible 24k-gold rolling papers ($20).
“Historically there have not been a lot of women ‘coming out of the cannabis closet’,” says Duckworth, who co-founded Miss Grass in January 2018. “But as more states are becoming recreationally legal and as cannabis is leading into the same conversation as wellness and fashion and food and beauty, I think that is changing. Women are already 40 per cent of overall consumers of cannabis and make up the fastest growing consumer base in legal markets here.”
Duckworth and Miller want to provide the highest-quality products possible while simultaneously creating a safe community around cannabis use. “The Miss Grass mission is about making cannabis accessible through education on the products, the science, the history and the politics,” says Miller, “all as a way to encourage conscious consumption.” www.missgrass.com
“ ‘What is CBD?’ That’s our most asked question,” says Marisa Schwab, half of the founding duo that make up The Chillery, the UK’s first direct-to-consumer cannabis product e-tailer, which launched in May. Friends since university, Schwab and Floriane von der Forst started their cannabis journeys independently. Schwab used it for her insomnia, Von der Forst for her spot-prone skin.
“I’m from LA and in the US cannabis is about four years ahead in terms of conversation and technology,” says Schwab. “Both Floriane and I realised that there was just nothing in the UK — no conversation, not enough high-quality products and most of all no education on where to buy products or indeed what cannabis even is.”
The Chillery’s shop is split into five areas: beauty, sleep, stress, pain and intimacy. Each section has products with easy to understand descriptions and also come with dosage suggestions so that even the least cannabis-confident user can try them. “Because cannabis is still relatively unknown in the UK for wellness purposes, no one understands what they are taking, buying or even how to use products,” says von der Forst. “We wanted to create a space on site where you can educate yourself, so we have a dosage guide and also a diagram outlining the cannabis plant. We also have a blog that contains information such as a CBD 101.”
With The Chillery being the first site of its kind in the country, the duo has a lot to take on, from navigating UK laws on the level of THC allowed in products (the UK allows lower levels of THC in CBD products than the US — although both admit this is a rather grey area) to ensuring product quality control and shipping. “We only offer products that are third-party lab tested,” says von der Forst, “but we try everything on ourselves first and ask, does this work? How do we feel?” The site is growing dramatically, at launch they had around 12 products, now there are 25. Their most popular item? “Oh that’s the CBD vape pen,” says Schwab. “It’s so easy to use, looks beautiful and is very discreet. It’s a good entry into the world of CBD for a newcomer.” www.thechillery.co
Set to launch in October, this cannabis company already holds an impressive number of firsts. One of the first companies to grow its own hemp in Europe, Apothem has its own bespoke extracting and testing lab facility as well as its own beauty line, which includes an array of offerings, from CBD drops to topical body products. Following its hemp harvest in September it will be one of the first companies to provide hemp, CBD and other cannabis derivatives to European businesses.
Founded by Tony North and Amelia Baerlein over a year ago, Apothem has faced many challenges since conception, not least navigating the complex UK and European laws that ensure it has full control of the product from farm to consumer. “We felt the need to reset the industry standard,” says Baerlein. “We can provide credibility and a truly transparent source for our consumer. Our products are organic, we do not use pesticides and, as we grow in Alicante, Spain, we have no need to grow our plants inside greenhouses or use artificial lighting processes.”
Any excess hemp created in production will be used to create new innovations such as packaging, clothing, shoes and accessories. www.apothemlabs.com