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Jamie Raskin's medical marijuana battle gets personal

By Ann E. Marimow
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."

After surgery, Raskin's doctor recommended a final round of chemotherapy. The doctor, Raskin said, gave him an 85 percent chance that the cancer would not return.

Raskin's tour in Annapolis will coincide with his final eight rounds of chemotherapy. Every other weekend through the end of the session, Raskin will spend 48 hours hooked into a pump. The treatments are tiring, and he experiences side effects that make his fingers and toes particularly sensitive to the cold.

"I've survived the disease. Now I'm just trying to survive the cure," Raskin said. "I only have a couple more months to go."

In the four years since he was elected from the district that includes Silver Spring and Takoma Park, Raskin has emerged as a respected voice in the Senate, and has developed an unlikely friendship with the chamber's long-serving leader: Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D- Calvert). Miller had been close to Ida G. Ruben, the incumbent Raskin defeated in 2006. And he is a conservative Democrat from Southern Maryland, while Raskin is a liberal Democrat who teaches law at American University.

But they have bonded over their shared interest in American history and appreciation for the institution. Miller turned to the constitutional scholar to nominate him for another term as Senate president and to deliver an annual speech marking George Washington's birthday.

"When he stands up and speaks . . . his voice is heard," Miller said. "He is a voice of reason. His voice carries great weight."

Support for legalization

Today, Raskin's suits are a little baggy from the 17 pounds he lost after surgery, and he is sleeping eight hours a night instead of four or five. He has become a devotee of massage and a proselytizer for colonoscopies and early detection, which he said saved his life.

What has not changed is the determination that made Raskin the subject of a Richard Avedon photograph that appeared in an exhibit called "Portraits of Power" at the Corcoran Gallery. Avedon photographed Raskin because of his writings on conservative judicial activism. Raskin also has not lost his sense of humor: The lawmaker, who is balding, has not lost more of his hair, and jokes that he's asked for the "kind of chemo that makes you grow hair."

There is broad bipartisan support to legalize marijuana for medical purposes in the Senate, where the bill passed last year on a 35 to 12 vote. The path is less certain in the House of Delegates.

Crafted by Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D-Baltimore County), a doctor, the bill would allow for the production and distribution of medical marijuana to seriously ill patients who receive a recommendation from a doctor. Morhaim said the bill is narrowly written to ensure a highly regulated system.

A key hurdle will probably be the Judiciary Committee led by Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. The Prince George's attorney said he has "a lot of sympathy for those people who would like to experiment with medical marijuana" but that he still has reservations about the bill because of its conflict with federal law.

"How do you manufacture a product that is illegal?" said Vallario, a Democrat. "I'm looking for the federal government to do something."

Supporters point to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.'s 2009 announcement that federal prosecutors would not go after medical marijuana patients who are complying with state laws. Maryland's current law passed in 2003 restricts penalties for those using marijuana for medical purposes to a misdemeanor and a $100 fine.

Raskin, however, remains optimistic about the bill's prospects in the House.

"I believe Chairman Vallario thinks government has got to serve the common good. We just need him to watch the testimony of people for whom medical marijuana is an absolute lifeline," Raskin said. "I think we will move him."

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