Chelsea Leyland Won't Rest Until Every Epileptic Has Access to Cannabis

Photo by Masha Maltsava

I first met Leyland this past 4/20 at Cannabliss, a cannabis wellness retreat in Malibu. Before I was finished marvelling at her outfit, particularly the chic pot leaf blazer she designed herself, she gave a breathtaking, articulate speech, detailing her journey with cannabis and epilepsy and, specifically, her discovery of CBD—a non-psychoactive compound found in the cannabis plant which has been shown to help with everything from sleep to anxiety, pain to epilepsy and beyond.

Though she was diagnosed with epilepsy in high school, she's been determined not to let her illness define her. She moved to New York from London to attend theater school, before pursuing her passion for DJing, despite the risk that strobe lights and late nights carry for epileptics who tend to be more sensitive to dappled lights and sleep deprivation than the average person.

Leyland's the perfect advocate for cannabis: Despite her stylish, hip, and central role among the arts, music, and fashion scenes—she literally trots the globe DJing—she shuns recreational drug and cannabis use. At least for herself.

"I don't use cannabis to get high, it's purely for medicinal purposes," she tells me. For Leyland, cannabis has been a lifesaver, a miracle medicine that's kept her seizure-free for the past two years, which was when she first tried it. Meanwhile, her older sister Tasmin, who suffers from a more severe form of epilepsy, is deprived of the plant and unable even to leave the UK so that she can get CBD medicine.

Cannabis helped Leyland not only take charge of her health, but become a leading activist on behalf of medical marijuana. Now, as the subject of the documentary Separating the Strains, she's using her influence for the cause. And she’s raising money. With just about a quarter of the documentary shot so far, the team is aiming to raise more than $65,000 on Kickstarter to complete the film. With a focus on Leyland's narrative, in contrast with her sister's less fortunate circumstance, the crew behind the documentary—directed by neuroscientist Caroline Sharp—is traveling the world interviewing researchers and getting an education on film to share with the masses. Their next stop is Israel, where scientist Raphael Mechoulam discovered THC.

Leyland herself was skeptical of cannabis for epilepsy when she first heard about it thanks to the hype around Dr. Sanjay Gupta's documentary Weed, which follows a young girl named Charlotte on her journey with CBD and epilepsy. Chelsea started to change her mind then. But it wasn’t until a friend gave her a few drops of CBD to try at a wedding that she felt so good that she actually forgot to take her regular medication—something she says she'd never, ever forget to do.

Chelsea Leyland Miss Grass On set with "Separating the Strains" UK Crew

To treat her own epilepsy, Leyland had been on a drug called Keppra for more than a decade. It made her irritable and gave her insomnia. When she first tried CBD, she says, she felt what it might be like to live without epilepsy. It was like Humpty Dumpty getting his pieces put back together again, she explains. When you have epilepsy, Leyland says, "something feels not good in your brain, it feels broken, but when I took , I felt the opposite sensation." Since she replaced Keppra with cannabis, she's been seizure-free and better balanced.

Separating the Strains examines the international medical cannabis industry and sheds light on the plant's power to treat conditions like epilepsy. The predominantly female team behind the documentary have even commissioned epileptic composers to write the soundtrack, giving the audience a peek inside an epileptic brain. The idea is to raise awareness and normalize both medical marijuana and epilepsy.

Leyland's mission is deeply personal, stemming from her own story and the fight to gain Tasmin access to the same medicine. "That's a metaphor for the bigger picture and bigger fight for the legalization of medicinal cannabis in the UK, and using epilepsy as a case study to explore CTE, the epidemic with the opioid crisis, and so many different conditions that cannabis is hugely beneficial in treating," Leyland says. "As I began to work as an activist for epilepsy and medicinal cannabis, the response I got was crazy, so that was the birth of the documentary. How can I reach as many people as possible? I now use CBD as my medicine and it's completely changed my life."

Donate to Chelsea's Kickstarter.

Madison Margolin is an LA/NY-based journalist on the cannabis beat. Her work has been featured in Rolling Stone, LA Weekly, Merry Jane, Herb, Playboy, and other places too.