Chelsea Leyland's Big Crusade for Cannabis
People will often ask Chelsea Leyland, who was diagnosed with juvenile myoclonic epilepsy at 13 years old, if she’s high.
“Everyone associates cannabis with getting stoned,” she says. “But that’s not what it is. It's medicine.”
The New York-based British DJ and actress quickly begins to list the benefits of CBD oil (a natural, non-psychoactive concentrate extracted from hemp used to treat everything from back pain and migraines, to PTSD and concussions, to epilepsy and autoimmune diseases like fibromyalgia), while railing against the western medicine she took for 16 years that left her suffering side effects like heart palpitations, panic attacks, fear, anxiety, insomnia and memory loss.
“Everyone associates cannabis with getting stoned. But that’s not what it is. It's medicine.”
“There were so many things about myself that I questioned: is this my personality, or is this because I take medication, or is this because I'm epileptic? After I introduced CBD into my life, I noticed many of these negative side effects began to disappear,” says Leyland of the moment she decided to replace her epilepsy drugs with CBD oil nine months ago. “CBD is anti-inflammatory for the body and the brain,” she explains. “It works on the brain’s endocannabinoid system (responsible for a variety of physiological processes includingappetite,pain sensation, , andmemory) to calm the nervous system, which is why it's anti-seizure.”
Leyland was first introduced to CBD oil by John Lycett Green, the founder of Medical Marijuana Genetics, and she admits she was dubious of its benefits. “It's hard to comprehend that CBD could help, having been surrounded by so much epilepsy my whole life,” she says, mentioning her older sister who suffers from a more severe form of epilepsy. “It just didn't seem logical, or rational, that some hemp oil could help treat seizures. I never thought it could impact my life on such a huge scale. Because surely, if it could really treat seizures my neurologist would be giving it to me!”
Because CBD oil contains low levels of THC, or none at all, it lacks a traditional marijuana high, leaving no adverse side effects—so much so that the first time Leyland took CBD, she forgot she’d actually taken it. But it was her second time taking the oil that her initial skepticism truly dissolved. “That night I got home and I forgot to take my epilepsy medication, which was never something I forget to take,” she explains, adding, “It's not like the contraceptive pill, where you set alarms to remind you to take it. The thing with having epilepsy is that it gets to a certain time of the day and I start not feeling well in my brain—that's my reminder. I don't need to set an alarm, it's like, okay pill time, I'm feeling funny.”
That night, however, Leyland’s internal medicine alarm was never triggered and she stayed up with friends until 6 a.m. “I've never been able to stay up all night,” Leyland reveals. “That was something as a teenager I always used to struggle with—I was so jealous of friends who would watch the sunrise.” Lack of sleep automatically puts Leyland in what she calls a “danger zone” in terms of feeling like she’s going to have a seizure. “Considering I was so sleep deprived, it was very out of character for me to be able to feel well for that long on my feet. My brain felt normal, or what I would imagine someone without epilepsy would feel.”
"My brain felt normal, or what I would imagine someone without epilepsy would feel.”
Leyland had previously inquired about using medical marijuana to treat epilepsy from her neurologist, but her inquiry was quickly dismissed. “He pretty much laughed at me. He made me feel like I just wanted to get stoned.” Leyland decided to take matters into her own hands, taking the risk of weaning herself off her medication alone—something she does not advocate, but for her, she says it was desperation. “At the end of the day, you know your body better than anyone. I've lived with epilepsy for a large portion of my life. I feel sometimes that I know more than my neurologist because he's not epileptic.”
Though her parents were apprehensive (“my dad told me I was crazy; that I should be really careful and that it was very dangerous”), she says growing up with an older sister who suffers from a more severe form of epilepsy and mild autism had given her the tools she needed to treat herself successfully. “I know the way you're meant to wean yourself off, which is very, very gradually. You cut it down for two weeks, and then you cut it down a little bit more.” Leyland has been entirely off her epilepsy medication for nine months now, exclusively taking CBD oil instead.
“No anxiety. No insomnia. No irritability. No heart palpitations. And most importantly, no seizures,” she says. “I've never felt so good."
She adds that she feels calmer and lighter. “The way my brain processes things just feels really different. It feels as though I'm catching up on sleep that I really needed.” The most important thing as an epileptic, she says, is having enough sleep. But she says the western medication she was taking to stop her seizures would keep her awake at night. “It’s the most ludicrous thing in the world. You're taking something that's fixing one problem, but then it's causing an array of new problems.”
Another side effect of the epilepsy drug Leyland was taking, called Keppra, is rage. “It sounds really funny, but there's a term called Kep Rage, which was actually a family joke. Whenever I'd lose my temper my dad would start shoutingKep Rage, Kep Rage. It's so hard, because when you need to take something, you have no choice—you just put up with it, no matter how bad the side effects are. Otherwise I was risking falling down and having a seizure and cracking my head open.”
“No anxiety. No insomnia. No irritability. No heart palpitations. And most importantly, no seizures. I've never felt so good."
Her parents are now 100 percent behind her, she says. “They're so happy for me and really, really supportive. They're telling everyone about it.”
Propelled by her own personal success story, Leyland has launched a cannabis consulting company alongside Jonathan Rice, the first medical marijuana patient in Maine after being diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease found in people who have suffered repeated blows to the head. The pair aim to help deliver medicine to people suffering from epilepsy, PTSD, pain management and concussions. “Our goal is simple,” she says. “We want to help people gain access to CBD and eradicate the stigma associated with it, so that people don't have to feel like criminals to access the medicine they deserve.” Leyland is working with influencers and athletes in order to bring people together in the cannabis community—and more importantly, to move the cause forward. “It's about reprogramming the way people perceive cannabis. It's about educating people and sharing our stories,” she says.
Leyland is also using her own social media platform (she has more than 61,000 Instagram followers) to advocate for medical marijuana. And her outreach seems to be working. “I was leaving a Valentino party recently and a woman stopped me to tell me how grateful she was about my posts surrounding CBD oil. Ultimately I’m doing something that is very truthful and personal, and I think people appreciate that honestly—it’s also nice to make noise about something that has meaning.” She describes the feeling of crusading for cannabis as a natural high. “In the fashion industry, you have to post all this narcissistic stuff, which is so draining. If you can use your platform to make change, to help transform someone else's life, it makes me feel better about social media—because I’m using it for a purpose.”
Leyland also works closely with the Epilepsy Society—a leading provider of epilepsy services in the UK, including in-patient care and research on site—where her sister is a permanent resident due to the severity of her condition. Leyland recently launched a Mark Cross X Chelsea Leyland capsule collection with 20 percent of sales benefiting the organization—the DJ's second collaboration for the Epilepsy Society after a successful Farfetch yoga project, which included a unitard line with Live The Process.
Her long term goal, though, is to convince her sister’s doctors that CBD oil will help. Despite a recent study by the American Epilepsy Society which found CBD could be effective in reducing both the frequency and severity of seizures in children and adults, Leyland says most doctors refuse to believe the results.
“My dream is to improve my sister's quality of life. But I can’t do that until the medical industry stands up to actually listen to their patients, to the studies. I feel cheated by the fact that I was on drugs for so long. It’s time for some change.”
Can You Travel with CBD Oil?
People in 29 states can legally use medical marijuana, and therefore CBD oil, for a variety of problems, including the relief of pain, anxiety and stress. But what if you want to travel with it?
Here, Wilmington-based attorney Peter Murphy discusses the legalities surrounding carrying cannabis oil on domestic flights. Murphy is a member of Eckert Seamans’ Regulated Substances Group, which advises clients involved in the retail sale of marijuana for medical use:
- The legality of CBD hemp or cannabis oil can be confusing. Some internet sources will say pure CBD oil is completely legal because it contains no psychoactive components that create the “high” when consuming marijuana. These same sites state that traveling with CBD oil products is therefore legal. This is not true.
- The most in December 2019 states that marijuana extracts continue to be treated as Schedule 1 controlled substances. This would seem to include CBD extracts, even those with trace amounts of THC. Many good arguments exist to remove non-psychoactive CBD products from the list of controlled substances, but to date that has not happened.
- Because cannabis extracts remain federally illegal, transporting CBD oil across state lines remains illegal under federal drug trafficking laws. Flying with medical cannabis would also be illegal as airports and aircrafts are under federal control.
- Some states (like Nevada, Michigan and New Hampshire) will accept out-of-state medical cannabis authorizations and permit visiting patients to use (and in some cases purchase) medical marijuana from state-licensed dispensaries. Unfortunately, the list of states that extend such reciprocity is small and dispensary owners have discretion to limit sales to state residents even where reciprocity exists.
- When it comes to flying with medical cannabis products, the TSA has taken the following position: “TSA security officers do not search for marijuana or other drugs. In the event a substance that appears to be marijuana is observed during security screening, the TSA will refer the matter to a law enforcement officer.” This hands-off approach is borne out by data. According to theNew York Times, of the 54 million passengers who went through Denver International Airport in 2015, the TSA stopped only 29 for possession of marijuana. In cases where marijuana was found that was within Colorado’s legal limit, the passengers were simply asked to dispose of it and no passengers were issued tickets.
- Until there are changes at the federal level, taking CBD oil or other medical cannabis products across state lines or onboard an aircraft will remain illegal under federal law. That said, federal enforcement priorities seem to remain focused on preventing revenues from the sale of drugs from going to criminal enterprises and preventing violence associated with the illegal drug trade. This is underscored by recently passed by Congress that includes the Rohrbacher-Blumenauer amendment. This amendment blocks the Department of Justice from spending money to enforce federal laws that would prevent the expansion of medical marijuana.
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