Campaign win a legacy of brave young man

The editor of a paper which has campaigned for medicinal use of marijuana has paid tribute to the young man who inspired him.

Dan Haslam succumbed to terminal cancer on Wednesday at the age of just 25. The Northern Daily Leader, led by editor Daniel Johns, united with Mr Haslam and his family in their fight for medical marijuana to be decriminalised, in order to allow patients to minimise the chronic pain and side effects of cancer treatment.

Mr Johns said the national impact of the paper’s campaign, Doing It For Dan, was extraordinary. “In ten months, the debate has gone from a political non-issue to being on the national agenda with the inevitability that laws will be drafted,” he said.

“For people with terminal illness, that wasn’t even on the table when this started.”

In the months since, the state government has announced plans to undertake clinical trials of medical marijuana, including for children with intractable or severe epilepsy. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has promised to decriminalise it, and bills have been tabled in several other states.

Doing It For Dan brought in 15,000 signatures to a petition within 48 hours and a front page reading “Yes, Minister!” prompted a wave of support for a private member’s bill and a visit to Tamworth from NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner to meet with Mr Haslam. It also changed NSW Premier Mike Baird’s view of medical cannabis.

The Northern Daily Leader's front page on Thursday morning.

The Northern Daily Leader’s front page on Thursday morning

“I will never forget the look in his eyes the first time I met him and it will stay with me forever,” the Premier said in a statement. “Dan made a lasting impression on everyone he met, but, more than that, he left a legacy in NSW that will be felt across the nation, and I believe the world.

“Every step we take on medical cannabis will be built on the footsteps he left behind.”

Mr Johns said the campaign had helped normalise the use of marijuana to treat illness and pain in children and adults.

It was a surprise result at a community level for the paper, too.

“Tamworth is a really conservative town, but people have been able to make the distinction between recreational and medical marijuana use,” Mr Johns said.

“Politicians have been trying to get their heads around it – they don’t want to appear soft on drugs.”

But the community doesn’t see it that way.

The campaign was a great example of how the electorate, rather than its politicians, could set the agenda, Mr Johns said.

“It is ordinary people who have led the way on this.”

The media has the power to calibrate their campaigns to the community mood and now with social media, newspapers are able to gauge what the community is thinking more than ever before.

“In the past you’d have to take a punt, a leap of faith, based off what you’d hear from guys in the pub,” Mr Johns said.

“Now we can see it really clearly – Facebook goes off on this topic.”

At first the Tamworth community was slow to engage on the issue but “we brought them along and educated them and now they’re converts; prophets of pot, if you like,” Mr Johns said.

It was a hugely positive experience for the Leader team to see that journalism could make a difference, he added. “We don’t do enough campaigning in regional papers.”

Leader editor Daniel Johns said that, unusually for a journalist, he had become very close to Mr Haslam and his family.

“I class them as close friends,” he said. “It makes it hard when you’re so close to the story but it just happened organically.

“The job for us now, the people who believe in the cause, is to continue Dan’s legacy, to keep working as he would have,” Mr Johns said.

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