Posted Online: Sept. 06, 2014, 5:31 pm
His gait is slow, and his eyelids often battle against the weight of sleep. Benton Mackenzie struggles, pausing to rest on each step as he climbs to the main floor of his parents’ two-story home, tucked between Eldridge and Long Grove. His eyes close and his back hunches from the effort as he finally reaches the top step. Enveloped in a heavy blanket, the 48-year-old takes halting steps towards the dining room table. He stops to arrange a stack of pillows on his chair then sinks down, his face clenched in pain, the shape of his tumors obvious beneath the folds of his gray sweatpants.
The bulbous cysts are painful reminders of an aggressive form of cancer he has tried to combat by growing marijuana and self-treating with cannabis oil. Benton says the oil — which has low amounts of THC, the psychoactive chemical that makes smokers high — has kept his tumors at bay for more than four years. Illegal in Iowa, his actions drew the attention of Scott County prosecutors.
In May, a Scott County jury convicted Benton, wife Loretta and their son, Cody, 22, of marijuana charges related to 71 plants and paraphernalia found at the home the family shares with Benton’s parents.
“He wasn’t bothering anybody, he wasn’t even telling anybody. And here’s all these people who are salivating over this,” his mother, Dorothy “Dottie” Mackenzie, 75, said. “It has gotten to be a joke.”
The family is scheduled to be sentenced at 2 p.m. Tuesday in Davenport before Scott County Judge Henry Latham II.
Stephen Bloomer, a longtime friend of the Mackenzies, also was charged with helping to grow the marijuana. He took a plea deal to avoid trial and will be sentenced Sept. 18.
Benton maintains that his crime was nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or more precisely, the wrong state.
Scott County attorney Mike Walton has said he had no choice but to prosecute, given Benton’s prior convictions, including possession of magic mushrooms in 2000 and a 2010 cannabis arrest. In the latter case, Benton maintained he was producing oil for treatment that was more effective than rounds of painful chemotherapy. “Those are his reasons for breaking the law,” Mr. Walton said.
Benton continues to defend those reasons with scripture, medical research and by citing the spread of medical marijuana laws around the country. “It is not lawful to stand idly by while somebody else suffers,” he said.
Recently back from a trip to Portland, Ore. — where he can buy cannabis oil for medical use — Benton said he was struck by the difference in attitudes, compared to Iowa, where he is currently required to live due to probation restrictions. “It was very refreshing, and overwhelming at the same time,” he said. “We weren’t prepared for that much reception.”
Oregon’s Medical Marijuana Act was passed in 1998. About 65,000 medical marijuana cards are issued to state residents for conditions ranging from cancer and epilepsy to post traumatic stress and Alzheimer’s, according to the Oregon Health Authority. The state also is gearing up to vote in November over whether to legalize recreational marijuana.
The trip to Portland — which Judge Latham did not object to — was hard on Benton, whose plane ride was made bearable by morphine-based painkillers.
“It was torture,” he said. “It’s almost getting to the point where if I don’t take first class, I just can’t fit in the seat.”
Benton draws the blanket tighter around his shoulders as he talks, his voice at times reaching barely above a whisper.
His parents’ home around him is cheerfully decorated, brimming with antiques, framed family pictures and paintings done by his brother.
But the quiet family scene was interrupted last June when heavily armed police officers swarmed outside.
Loretta answered the door to guns pointed in her face and shouts of “Get on the floor!” the family said.
“They’ve actually treated this family like we’re some sort of a mafia family or something,” Loretta said. “The kind of gusto they put into it … I mean, 20 SWAT agents at 5:45 a.m.?”
Loretta gave up her job to care for Benton after his diagnosis with angiosarcoma in 2011 and, during the recent trial, plumped pillows, fetched water, juggled doctor visits and accompanied him to the hospital after he suffered dizziness and hallucinations.
She spoke excitedly about the family’s trip to Portland. “It’s been amazing. They’ve had the freedom for so many years to innovate with cannabis science. I mean, everybody had their own recipe for tinctures and oils: ‘Use this stuff for burns; use this stuff for aches and pains.’ And, it all works.”
After landing, they went to a local dispensary to get cannabis oil and cannabis juice, the taste of which Benton likened to wheat grass or “grass clippings.”
They were not allowed to bring the cannabis products back to Iowa.
Frustratingly for the family, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad signed into a law a medical marijuana bill in May that only allowed epileptics and their caregivers to legally purchase cannabis oil.
“That’s the nature of the bill,” Benton said. “With the oil that I need — if I had epilepsy I could bring it back.”
Since the Mackenzie family was convicted, supporters have collected more than 16,000 signatures to petition Gov. Branstad to pardon the family.
Jimmy Centers, a spokesman for the governor, declined to comment on whether Gov. Branstad would consider a pardon, saying it was “premature to offer an opinion on a case” prior to sentencing.
Portland provided the Mackenzies a brief reprieve from thinking about the case.
They were invited to speak on the Internet-based show “Cannabis Common Sense,” hosted by Paul Stanford.
Loretta ended up doing most of the talking after Benton started to nod off, drained of energy from taking stronger doses of oil than he was used to so he could make up for treatment time lost.
“Every time I’m forced to be without it, or am just without it, it takes so much more coming back to be as effective as it was before,” he said.
In Iowa, it’s clear that the family’s paranoia about being targeted by police has not lessened since the trial. At one point during dinner, conversation among the four adults abruptly halted as they strained to watch a black SUV drive slowly past the house.
“They still drive around here,” Dottie said, shaking her head.
They had brief relief last month when prosecutor Patrick McElyea dropped charges against Dottie and husband Charles “Chuck” Mackenzie, 76, saying there was no evidence to suggest they hosted a drug house.
The aging couple said they repeatedly declined plea deals offered by prosecutors, in the hope of going to trial and telling their son’s story.
Despite showing up to court in a wheelchair and bandages, Benton’s medical condition was kept secret from jurors, as were his reasons for growing the cannabis plants.
Judge Latham prohibited Benton from using his medical condition as a legal defense, based on the 2005 Iowa Supreme Court decision in State v. Bonjour, in which an AIDS patient arrested for growing marijuana was barred from using a medical defense.
Benton repeatedly challenged Judge Latham’s decision, pointing to Bible passages, such as Genesis 1:29, to argue that God created “seed-bearing plants” — including cannabis — for human use.
“He has never been one to let rules stop him if the rule is stupid,” Dottie said. “Rules always had to make sense to Ben.”
The family dreams of one day moving to Oregon, where Benton could legally grow and purchase marijuana to manage his cancer.
Plans are cloudier if the sentencing puts them in prison jumpsuits. With the extensive care and treatment Benton requires, the family can’t imagine what imprisonment would mean for them.
“I’m certain that Ben’s case is not the only case of somebody who is using marijuana to treat medical issues,” Loretta said. “People are too scared to fight, and I think, if anything, they’re looking at this and saying ‘Wow.’ I think some people will come out of the closet.”
Chuck, thinks marijuana has been unfairly demonized at the expense of those who need it.
“People are afraid of it — you see people, you say marijuana, and they equate it with somebody laying down on a street corner, smoking,” Chuck said. “And that’s not what this is about.”
For now, Benton remains in pain, his family praying for a miracle. He says he is waiting for the “punchline” to all of this.
“I think it’s built to a point where it has to make a change,” Benton said. “Something is going to happen because of it. It’s un-ignorable.”