Helen Kelly made history as the first woman to lead the Aotearoa New Zealand union movement. On February 18, 2015, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She died on October 14, 2016. She was 52. This is an extract from Helen Kelly: Her Life by Rebecca Macfie, published by Awa Press and currently long-listed for the 2022 Ockham New Zealand Book Award in Non-fiction.
“I have found myself in a row about medical cannabis,” Helen wrote to friends. It was a typical understatement. Helen had barely touched dope as a teenager when friends were experimenting, but now she was the country’s most high-profile user. People had recommended she try it to relieve the pain and nausea associated with her cancer and chemotherapy. She had been receiving a good supply of cannabis balm made by a friend of a friend. It would arrive in beautiful jars, with little hearts carved into the top of the ointment. No money ever changed hands.
Cannabis oil was helping her sleep at night and reduce the need for morphine, which made her feel sick and “gluggy”. She had disclosed publicly around the time of her retirement from the CTU that she was using cannabis and it was making an enormous difference to her ability to function. “Green fairies” were soon dropping stuff at the front door of her home in Wellington’s Shannon Street or mailing it to the CTU: cannabis cookies, cannabis chocolate, cannabis leaf to brew into tea. All illicit, and all supplied by people who were putting themselves at risk of criminal charges.
Emails started arriving, too – from people with multiple sclerosis, arthritis, cancer and chronic pain who were either relying on cannabis sourced from the black market and wanted to get it legally, or who were desperate for advice on how it might relieve their symptoms and how to obtain it. She had no background in the long-running drug reform debate, but from the moment she spoke up activists were in touch to harness her voice to the cause. She felt she had no choice but to climb into the campaign for legalisation of cannabis: the law was blocking products that could ease suffering and she could shift public opinion.
“It seemed to me you couldn’t take illegal cannabis and let other families be absolutely deprived of it,” she told broadcaster John Campbell. A prominent union leader turning to cannabis made good copy, and the media was keen on the story. At her urging, Labour MP Damien O’Connor drafted a private member’s Bill for a referendum on legalising medicinal cannabis; it was knocked back in caucus, the party instead adopting a policy to allow medicinal use in limited circumstances if it won the 2017 election.
Helen decided to apply through a very small regulatory window to bring in a non-pharmaceutical cannabis product from the US. There was a high threshold for approval; it would have to be signed off by the associate minister of health, Peter Dunne. If the application succeeded, it might help ease the way for other people to get what they needed. If she was turned down, it would expose an inhumane law that was forcing a dying woman to become a criminal.
She thrashed the story on social media – posting a photo of herself mailing the application and teasing Dunne relentlessly with the hashtag #apersoncoulddiewaiting about the time it was taking for a response. She didn’t get approval, but the story of her stymied application simmered away in the media for months.
Meanwhile, she was on television demonstrating the products she found most helpful and how and when she imbibed them. Her lawbreaking was brazen; she might as well have said to the police and justice system, “so – what are you going to do about it?” No constable ever turned up at Shannon Street to lay charges.
“She changed the game completely,” said Abe Gray, a veteran cannabis campaigner who worked closely with Helen to shift political and public attitudes. “She was the first living person with clout to stand up and say, ‘I’m using this.’ She got cut through.” And there was no artifice about her claims; cannabis had become a key part of her disease management and she struggled to cope without it.
In March 2016 – during ongoing chemotherapy – she flew to Geneva for a meeting of the ILO Governing Body focused on the refugee crisis crashing across Europe. She stayed with friends James Ritchie and Jane Lawless; as a nurse, Lawless was able to provide care and advice if anything went wrong. Ritchie had the job of heading down to a local park populated by “dubious characters” to secure a cannabis supply.
Communicating through body language and his modest French, a deal was done. Ritchie and Lawless mixed up the cannabis in the coffee grinder and baked it into brownies. “It took a long time to get that smell out of the coffee grinder,” Ritchie said afterwards.