Mackenzies found guilty in pot case


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Originally Posted Online: July 09, 2014, 1:39 pm
Last Updated: July 09, 2014, 10:45 pm
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By Rachel Warmke, rwarmke@qconline.com

Even as the 12 jurors shuffled into the courtroom to announce their verdict, Benton Mackenzie could already sense his fate.

Guilty.

Moments later, just before 2:15 p.m., his fears were confirmed: the seven men and five women found Mr. Mackenzie and his 43-year-old wife, Loretta, guilty of manufacturing cannabis, conspiracy to commit a felony, drug tax stamp violation and possession of drug paraphernalia.

His wife's eyes welled with tears as their 22-year-old son, Cody, also was pronounced guilty of misdemeanor counts of possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of a controlled substance.

The case against Mr. Mackenzie, a 48-year-old cancer patient who said he grew marijuana to treat painful tumors on his skin with cannabis oil, has garnered national attention and prompted an outcry on social media sites from people wanting Iowa's marijuana laws reformed.

An online petition titled "Free Benton Mackenzie" had 433 supports by late Wednesday. A Facebook page, with the same title, contained dozens of links to media stories on medical marijuana. One commenter called Mr. Mackenzie's case an "absolute injustice"; another wrote, "Sending prayers from Colorado."

The family is scheduled to remain free pending an Aug. 28 sentencing hearing.

Mr. Mackenzie was convicted in 2000 for possession with intent to deliver. He and his wife were convicted of the same charge in 2011 after family members say cannabis he was growing for medicinal purposes was seized from their apartment.

Scott County Attorney Mike Walton said Mr. Mackenzie's prior convictions make him eligible for a maximum of 15 years in prison, but probation is still a possibility. Probation also is also an option for his wife, who faces 10 years, and his son, who could receive up to one year for his misdemeanor offenses. 

Mr. Walton declined to say what punishments prosecutors intended to recommend.

"It's an unfortunate case," he said. "Nobody enjoyed pursuing it, but the fact that he (Benton Mackenzie) had two prior possession with intent to deliver drug cases makes it kind of difficult to ignore."

Assistant Scott County attorney Patrick McElyea, who prosecuted the case, could not be reached for comment.

After the verdicts, the Mackenzie family sat stoically as their attorneys began discussing post-conviction details. The family said they had prepared for the worst, but had hoped enough prayer, media attention and the physical state of wheelchair-bound Benton Mackenzie would be enough. 

Still, Mr. Mackenzie said he was not surprised by the jury's response.

"I knew that's what they were going to do," he said.

The family was arrested June 21, 2013, after authorities raided their home and found 71 marijuana plants and drug paraphernalia. When first charged, Mr. Mackenzie imagined a different trial outcome with him explaining to jurors why he grew marijuana.

But Scott County District Court Judge Henry Latham ruled that, because marijuana is illegal in Iowa, medical marijuana could not be used as a legal defense. Judge Latham cited the 2005 Iowa Supreme Court decision in State v. Bonjour that upheld the conviction of Lloyd Bonjour, an AIDS patient who had grown marijuana.

Mr. Mackenzie and his wife said they believe their verdict would have been different if jurors had been able to hear their explanation. 

"So much important information was kept from them," Loretta Mackenzie said, in the "controlled environment" of the courtroom.

Jurors were escorted from the courtroom Wednesday afternoon by jail officials who saw them to their vehicles.

The Mackenzie family intends to appeal the convictions, but Mr. Mackenzie said he has little faith he will avoid a prison sentence. He also is blunt in predicting what will happen if left to care for his cancer behind bars.

"I'm going to die there," he said, adding that thought doesn't frighten him as much as not having adequate pain medication. 

A bleak prognosis

When diagnosed two and a half years ago, Mr. Mackenzie's prognosis was bleak. Few with the angiosarcoma he suffered from recovered successfully using chemotherapy, radiation or other traditional forms of treatment, his family said.

Research led to him to Oregon and cannabis oil. Used as a salve and rubbed on the skin, the oil immediately decreased the size of his tumors, he said; his energy returned and he felt like he'd been given a new lease on life.

But on June 21, 2013, police raided the Eldridge home where he and his family lived with his parents. The five were arrested, along with a friend, Stephen Bloomer, who lived in an RV on the property where the majority of the cannabis plants were kept.

Mr. Mackenzie was held in jail for six months and only released, family members say, when it became too expensive for Scott County to pay his medical bills.

In an ironic twist, family members say that, while his case was pending, Mr. Mackenzie was allowed to travel to Oregon to buy cannabis oil. The oil was expensive and illegal to take out of state.

Within months of being jailed and stopping his daily cannabis oil treatment, Mr. Mackenzie said, his tumors returned, swelling to the size of grapefruits.

"It's his body"

His case comes in the midst of a national dialogue about marijuana.

Currently, 23 states have legalized medical marijuana. An Iowa law went into effect July 1 permitting the use of cannabis oil for epileptics and patients who obtain a prescription from a pharmacist.

Judge Latham denied numerous motions by Mr. Mackenzie about the new legislation, ruling it was not applicable in this case.

"It is a valid treatment," said Michelle "Shelly" Van Winkle, a family friend and registered nurse in Muscatine who said she saw the benefits of medical marijuana while living in California.

"Almost every medicine that we have is derived from a plant, flower or tree bark," she said. "It is ridiculous that they're trying to compartmentalize this one thing and make it such a bad thing. It doesn't have to be; use it for the good it can do."

Mrs. Van Winkle said the cannabidiol Mr. Mackenzie extracted from the cannabis plants to make oil is not psychoactive and does not get a user high. Authorities found 71 plants at the Mackenzie's home; Mrs. Van Winkle said it takes "an incredible amount" of mature plants to extract enough oil for a daily treatment.

"But unfortunately, all the jury is going to see is an RV full of weed," she said.

Even states that recognize medicinal marijuana often saddle users with hefty bills. Mrs. Van Winkle said the costs of insurance and proper medical care have driven some to take matters into their own hands.

"If you legalize it and then make it unattainable, people will grow their own," she said.

Mrs. Van Winkle said she believes marijuana has been stigmatized and the net the Iowa marijuana law casts is too broad and ends up catching innocent people.

"It's his body," she said of Mr. Mackenzie.

She said Judge Latham was just upholding the law. But someone should have stepped in and put a stop to this case, she said.

"That is just politics," she said. "And when is politics more important than a human life?"
















 




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