Wisconsin free speech and pot legalization activist Ben Masel died in a Madison hospice Saturday of complications from a months-long struggle with lung cancer. He was 56 years old.
Born in the Bronx and raised in New Jersey, Masel moved to Madison in 1971 and became a fixture of the counter-culture scene in the decades since then. Masel was the director of the Wisconsin state NORML chapter in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and served as state NORML vice-president for the past decade.
He had hoped to attend the national NORML conference in Denver last month for one last hurrah, but complications from his cancer treatments left him too ill to attend. Instead, NORML honored him with a marijuana legalization lifetime achievement award that was accepted by Wisconsin NORML members in attendance.
A hard-core civil libertarian, Masel repeatedly challenged state and local officials who sought to shut him up -- and won repeated free speech cases, with resulting cash settlements, in state and federal courts. He frequently joked that that was a great way to make a living -- as long as you could wait indefinitely to get paid.
Although he was diagnosed with cancer in January and was in the midst of treatments, Masel was energized by the mass protests in Madison in March and managed to get to the capitol to participate. One of the last activist images of Masel is him holding up a sign in a capitol corridor announcing an "Emergency Test of the Free Speech Network."
Ben was always a fixture at national marijuana policy conferences. We spent many a smoke-break outside together, comparing notes and plotting strategies. I will miss him as a friend and colleague, but the movement is now missing one of its champions.
- Phillip Smith