Remembering Ben Masel: Activist Changed The Cannabis Debate



By Michael Bachara

Lifelong activist Ben Masel died on Saturday after a battle with lung cancer. As the hemp and cannabis community and many others mourn this great loss, we must also remember what Masel spent most of his life fighting for, and continue on the path he helped to blaze.
Over the course of his life, Masel traveled countless miles and spent innumerable hours voicing his ideas and fighting for the rights of his fellows. Even in the face of opposition, he continued to speak out in favor of hemp and cannabis legalization, freedom of speech and the ability of people who take a stand to make a difference.
Masel’s lifelong passion, the Great Midwest Marijuana Harvest Festival in Madison, Wisconsin, began as a marijuana smoke-in in 1971. The Harvest Festival, now marking its 41st year, has a long history of promoting cannabis/hemp legalization and free speech while providing an annual celebration for like-minded people.

Photo: Scott Walker Watch
Ben Masel, October 17, 1954 – April 30, 2011

​Masel was also a member of the Youth International Party, known as the Yippies. The Yippies were more radically youth-oriented and a countercultural offshoot of the Free Speech and anti-war movements of the 1960s. Embracing the alternative culture, arranging street protests and public pranks, the Yippies have often been described as anti-Establishment.
“Through the intransigence of one activist, Madison became the one state capital in the U.S. with well-defined rights for civil protestors,” explained Masel’s longtime fellow activist, attorney and good friend Don E. Wirtshafter. “Ben set an example of courage and determination that should inspire all of us to action.”

Photo: Phil Ejercito

​”I first men Ben in 1978 during the organizing for the 10th anniversary of the Chicago convention riots,” longtime friend Steve Wessing told Hemp News. “He introduced me to most of the biggest names in the cannabis community.”
​”He has been my roommate, business partner, mentor, figurehead, point guard, expert witness, co-defendant, cellmate, hero, brother and patient,” Wessing said. “We have traveled tens of thousands of miles together by trains, buses, cars and airplanes. We’ve faced police lines and tear gas together in more states than I can remember — all in the name of legalization.
“I will miss him greatly,” Wessing said.
Masel was able to inspire many people over his life. Said Robert Platshorn, famous 1970s marijuana smuggler and author of The Black Tuna Diaries, “Despite me being an almost total stranger and despite Ben being very ill and weakened by a futile debilitating series of chemo treatments, he picked me up at my hotel with all of my books and promotional gear, and took me to the theater.” Platshorn was in Madison, Wisconsin for the premier of Square Grouper, a movie featuring events from Platshorn’s life.
During their dinner conversation after the premier, Platshorn found himself amazed at Masel’s passion to fight for the people, most recently for Wisconsin teachers, and the fact that despite illness, Masel was still out protesting on the cold and windy Wisconsin Capitol steps.

Photo: Jay Selthofner

​Having breakfast the next morning after the premier, “[He wanted] to encourage me,” Platshorn said. “He believed the senior vote could be the missing piece to full legalization of cannabis. In retrospect the high point of my movie tour was to introduce Ben Masel to the audience at the close of my Wisconsin screening.
“I gave him his final bow in front of the people for whom he had fought so hard, for so many years,” Platshorn said. “They all knew him, loved him and gave him a final standing ovation. This will always be a proud moment in my life.”
Earlier this month in Denver, Masel received the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Board of Directors’ Special Appreciation Award for “a lifetime of outstanding work in advancing the cause of legalizing marijuana.” The award, which was presented by Wirtshafter, was accepted by Wisconsin and Madison NORML members who had made the pilgrimage to the “Mile High City” on Masel’s behalf.
Masel first got attention for his radicalism when, at age 17, he became the youngest person placed on President Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies list,” “and ‘the man’ has kept his eye on Ben ever since,” according to NORML Outreach Coordinator “Radical” Russ Belville.
In conjunction with Hempstalk 2010, Masel created one of the first online festival petitions asking President Obama to pardon or commute the sentences of long-term marijuana prisoners. He educated the crowd on how the President has the authority with the stroke of a pen to pardon these individuals.
Even after his hospitalization due to his illness, Masel continued to speak out for what he believed through social networking websites.
I urge you to visit Masel’s ongoing petition site and take the time to sign in his honor as thanks for a life well lived, dedicated to many noble causes. You can access his petition for marijuana prisoners here.

Photo: Gary Storck