Jamie Raskin's medical marijuana battle gets personal

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011; 5:27 PM

In the weeks after a bill to legalize medical marijuana in Maryland failed last spring, the state senator who championed the legislation, Jamie B. Raskin of Montgomery County, found himself in a doctor's office with a new perspective on the issue.

The doctor told him that he had a "worrisome" mass the size of a golf ball in his colon. Raskin would learn four days later he had cancer.

Now a disease that Raskin, 48, largely kept under the radar during his successful reelection campaign last fall becomes very public when he returns to Annapolis for the General Assembly session that begins on Wednesday.

"Public health is now personal for me," Raskin said. "I know what it means for people to be living on the absolute edge of hope and despair, and politicians should not get in the way of people getting the medical relief they need."

Raskin (D) will be one of the leading voices on several issues during the legislative session, but when he speaks about medical marijuana he will add a compelling personal story to the debate over whether Maryland should join more than a dozen other states and the District in legalizing the drug for medical use.

During chemotherapy, Raskin said he did not consider medical marijuana because of a family history of asthma and cystic fibrosis. But he is adamant that he and and his colleagues should work "to relieve suffering." Medical marijuana, proponents and patients have said, can ease pain and stimulate appetite for those suffering from cancer, HIV/AIDS and other diseases.

"When you get something like this, you spend most of the time thinking of your kids," said Raskin, who has children ages 13, 15 and 18. "I want to be there to see my grandchildren get married one day."

Campaigning with cancer

Last session, Raskin joined with Republican Sen. David R. Brinkley of Frederick, a two-time cancer survivor, to successfully shepherd the measure through the Senate with bipartisan support. The bill did not come up for a vote in the House in part because of concerns among leaders about the political implications in an election year.

Raskin's own 2010 reelection campaign posed a far different challenge than his first contest. Four years ago, the political novice defied the odds, defeating a longtime incumbent with an energetic network of volunteers. Last fall, Raskin had no Democratic primary challenger or general election opponent. Instead he faced what he called "an internal opponent" or "foreign invader."

The tumor was discovered after a colonoscopy last May that Raskin's gastroenterologist recommended as part of an exam related to his acid reflux. After a week of "fear, uncertainty and drowning in self-pity," Raskin said he moved quickly to find treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital. In early morning sessions, he underwent six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, shrinking the tumor to the size of a pea.

During treatment, Raskin knocked on the doors of constituents and made a point of walking the more than one-mile route of Takoma Park's July Fourth parade. But he would wait until after surgery to formally share his news in an e-mail with supporters because he said he hoped the prognosis would be good.

Three days after the September primary, Raskin underwent six-hour surgery at Hopkins to remove part his colon. He awoke at the hospital to a gaggle of his General Assembly colleagues from Baltimore and was told that the surgery was a "total success."

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