Hard News by Russell Brown



Helen Kelly didn't take her medical cannabis before we came to see her last Friday.

She explained that she wanted to be articulate for the interview she was doing for a Radio New Zealand series I'm making. I can only guess that came at some cost in pain, and the anxiety she regarded as one of the more irksome side-effects of her cancer.

She was focused, good-humoured and thoughtful throughout the interview and then, with as much joy as relief, summoned some of the preparations she had been given to help her through: grassy white chocolate made from cannabutter, a leafy tea, a lovely-smelling cannabis balm that she invited us to rub on our sore bits.

I didn't know Helen well, but I've spoken to her quite a few times in recent years. She became CTU President not long before Media7 launched in 2008 and after I had a crack on the show at something she'd said, she suggested she come on the following week. She was not only impressive, but relaxed and fun.

A few months ago, she was a panelist at a law reform meeting I chaired. I don't think I've ever run an event with someone so aware of what was happening. She clocked my face when one speaker was going on a bit long   and quietly asked me if I wanted her to pass him a note (she did). When I was struggling a little with a commenter from the floor (this happens at cannabis events), she quietly indicated I should give myself a break and move on. I thought at the time it was indicative of a strong sense of empathy.

That sense of empathy informed her final campaign: for medical cannabis  reform. Having discovered that marijuana eased the symptoms of the ravage beginning in her body, she could simply have quietly taken it. But she decided to talk. And then, even as her time was being cruelly shortened, she offered that time to the people who contacted her to tell her their stories. She listened.

That was what the interview was about. It's not due to air until next month, although it seems that you'll hear some later today. I think my final question was as to whether, as a lifelong organiser, she felt some frustration with the sometime lack of organisation in the reform lobby. She did. She would have liked to see more unity of purpose. And perhaps that's what fractious reformers can take away: that although they may have different goals and different ways of reaching them, even different ideas of what a win looks like, they are all on the same side.

Although she would not have wished it, Helen died in an auspicious week for that one last campaign. Rose Renton's petition was presented to Parliament on Wednesday; the characters who once had a smoke-up outside the building were invited in by MPs. And I understand that this weekend, there will be a small, incremental but important announcement about a medical cannabis product. These two incremental wins are wins for all.

We did the interview at Helen's house in Mt Victoria,with its magnificent view of Wellington and its foreshore. She had been in hospice, but petitioned to come home, where three lovely women, her friends, were caring for her, and where her stately cat was keeping the seat warm.

I was so focused on the interview last Friday that I didn't realise her friends were listening intently, hovering at the door. They had been understandably protective of her. But when we wrapped, they stood there and applauded. As might we all.

Arohanui, Helen Kelly. Being with you last week was a pleasure and a very great privilege.

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