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Benton Mackenzie, medical pot crusader, succumbs to cancer

Benton Mackenzie, medical pot crusader, succumbs to cancer

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 Benton Mackenzie, the  Long Grove, Iowa, man whose decision to grow cannabis to treat his terminal cancer led to a criminal conviction and helped spark a debate about Iowa's marijuana laws, died Monday morning at his home, family members said.

The 49-year-old man was remembered by those close to him as a tireless advocate who faced off against the Scott County court system to justify his growth of cannabis to make homemade medicinal oil. His unflinching resolve to defend his beliefs since he was diagnosed with angiosarcoma in 2011 is what family members say they'll remember.

"Ben's battle is finally over," his mother, Dottie Mackenzie, 75, wrote in an email sent to friends and family shortly after his death.

Mr. Mackenzie lived at his parents' home, with wife Loretta, 43, and their son Cody, 23, for the last two years of his life as he battled tumors that ravaged the lower portion of his body, leaving him weak and bedridden.

The entire family was the subject of a Scott County drug investigation in 2013 which ultimately led to criminal charges. Mr. Mackenzie, his wife and son, Loretta were found guilty of cannabis charges by a Scott County jury in July.

Mr. Mackenzie, who appeared at trial wheelchair bound  was forbidden by Judge Henry Latham to tell jurors about his cancer or his reason for growing cannabis.

The same judge sentenced Mr. Mackenzie, his wife and son to stints of probation in September, saying it was evident Mr. Mackenzie's condition required at-home care.

The trial and sentencing sparked local protests and calls for expansion and reform to Iowa's  medical marijuana laws. The Medical Cannabidiol Act, signed into law last summer by Gov. Terry Branstad, allows narrow access to non-psychoactive cannabidiol for patients with epilepsy. 

The last months of Benton Mackenzie's life were spent bedridden and in almost constant pain, family members said. Pill bottles and hourly dressing changes replaced the days of a once vibrant family man and avid bagpipe player.

After the trial, Mr. Mackenzie traveled to Oregon to obtain legal cannabis oil, as he had several times in the past. Plans to move to the marijuana-friendly state, however, were put on indefinite hold as it became clear his body couldn't handle the physical aspects of travel.

Mr. Mackenzie told the Dispatch/Argus he didn't have high hopes he would live long enough to see the outcome of a pending appeal on the Scott County case. Still, he was poignantly aware what a change in Iowa law could do for medical patients like him.

"I think it's built to a point where it has to make a change," Mr. Mackenzie said in September, days before he was sentenced to probation. "Something is going to happen because of it. It's un-ignorable."

Holidays were noticeably quieter at the Mackenzies' this year. Rather than the usual house full of friends and relatives, the Mackenzies shared low-key plates of Thanksgiving turkey around Mr. Mackenzie's bed. He remained there New Years Eve, a holiday marked only by glasses of sparkling grape juice brought down by his parents moments before midnight.

For the faith-based family, it seemed a grace from God that each night, their in-home bible session and recorded sermons seemed tailored to their current situation. 

On the final night of 2014, they listened to a sermon titled "Dying Grace."

Strains of Jack Johnson, one of  Mr. Mackenzie's favorite singers, "soothed" him throughout the day Sunday, Loretta said. 

"His face is sunken, his eyes are drooping and he looks very close to going home," she wrote in a Facebook post Sunday. "Seeing him like this is ripping my heart out I just want to hold him so much but he's so tender. All I can do is kiss his forehead constantly and tell him how much I love him."

Friends created the "Free Benton Mackenzie" Facebook page which was used to update people during the court case. On Monday, the page was filled with droves of messages from those who said they had been changed by his story.

"May Ben rest peacefully & you all find peace in knowing he is without pain," wrote one woman. "Please know that thanks to Ben's struggle many eyes were opened a little more- including my own- & he leaves a legacy in the fight for change."

Others wrote that Mr. Mackenzie was a "man that inspired and educated many" and that his death was "not in vain," but rather would "leave a lasting impact on social change." 


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