Ben Masel, the longtime face of the movement to legalize marijuana in Madison, is dying of lung cancer.
Doctors can't say whether there's a direct connection between Masel's cancer and his marijuana use, since he also smoked tobacco for 40 years. But unlike his cigarette use, which was light but long term, Masel acknowledges his marijuana smoking has been heavy "by anybody's standards."
Dr. Michael Fiore, director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention, said it's impossible to determine what caused Masel's lung cancer.
What is known is that the longer a person smokes, and the more cigarettes he or she smokes, the greater the risk of lung cancer, Fiore said. "In terms of marijuana and lung cancer the jury is still out, but the answer is that it is probably a cause of lung cancer."
Masel, 56, was diagnosed with lung cancer in January and learned two weeks ago the cancer was stage IV, meaning it has spread beyond his lungs. Medical scans showed that the cancer has metastasized past a cure, he said.
At that point, his treatment strategy went from "cure to contain," he said this week from his home away from home, EVP Coffee on East Washington Avenue.
He'd just had his fifth of 25 radiation treatments and will have a 10-day break before he begins chemotherapy. During that time he intends to travel to Denver for the national conference of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws).
Masel has been vice president of the state organization for nearly a decade and was state director for six years in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
"I didn't think it would take this long," Masel said about his still-unrealized hope to legalize marijuana.
Masel, who was born in the Bronx and grew up in New Jersey, moved to Madison in 1971. He first smoked marijuana at age 14, cigarettes at 15.
He's still getting high, he said, but not as much from smoking marijuana. He has found other ways to ingest it, like vaporizing it, mixing it in an alcohol tincture and putting it in butter extract.
Masel said he quit smoking cigarettes just weeks before he was diagnosed as the result of a viral lung infection. He's always hand rolled his tobacco, so it's hard to quantify his cigarette smoking in a "packs a day" way. "It was relatively light, but over forever," he said.
He admits that his lung cancer could be viewed as a cautionary tale about nicotine or tobacco, but said he doesn't want to emphasize that. If he has regrets, he doesn't want to discuss them.
"I'm feeling pretty upbeat about stuff. Not about having (cancer), but overall," he said. "I'm definitely not in the 'Oh, no, poor me, I've got cancer' mode."
He's not sure it's ironic that the area's most visible marijuana rights activist has lung cancer. "I certainly got warned about the tobacco, so I can't gripe there," he said.
From the research he's seen, Masel said, he's not persuaded there's a cannabis connection to cancer. Cannabis is also helpful in mitigating side effects from cancer treatments, particularly chemotherapy, Masel said.
Many of the carcinogens that are present in tobacco smoke are also present in marijuana smoke, Fiore said. But there isn't a lot of data on marijuana risk mainly because people are more reluctant to talk about their use of the drug, he said.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women in the United States. Ninety percent of lung cancer deaths among men and approximately 80 percent of lung cancer deaths among women are due to smoking, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Masel, a perennial candidate for various elected offices, is the only one so far to declare his candidacy in the 2012 U.S. Senate race for the seat held by Herb Kohl. He knows he may not live live to see Election Day.
He doesn't have health insurance and hasn't had a conventional job in a long time. But he has a history of winning false arrest and First Amendment lawsuits, "which is a great hourly rate if you can wait forever to get paid," he joked.
Masel has also been a constant presence at the Capitol protests over the past month, even defying a doctor's order that he remain in the hospital.
"If I'm going to be deceased today, I can't think of a better place than in the rotunda," he told his doctor.