Court records portray Benton Mackenzie as a career drug dealer, with pot-growing arrests in 2010 and this year.
Medical records confirm the 47-year-old suffers from terminal cancer. Painful, cancerous growths pepper his rear end, and the only relief he found is from marijuana Scott County deputies seized from his Long Grove home.
Next month, a Scott County court will determine if Mackenzie is a chronic pot grower undeterred by arrests, or a patient denied a home marijuana remedy readily available in 20 other states that have legalized medicinal marijuana.
Mackenzie spent 42 days in jail, unable to raise bond until Scott County Jail personnel saw the extent of his cancer and released him without bond in August to avoid costs of his medical treatment.
Independent physicians affirm Mackenzie’s diagnosis will lead to certain death. But before that, he has to answer to Iowa’s justice system.
Heart disease and cancer
Mackenzie gazes at a computer screen in the basement apartment of his parents’ home as Loretta, his wife of 21 years, brings him fresh juice squeezed from fruit in their garden.
He used to be more of an outdoorsy type and an avid bagpiper, sometimes donning a kilt to pipe competitively. Heart disease and a cancer diagnosis have turned him into an online research junkie, looking for ways to manage his ailing health with marijuana and chat with other survivors.
Loretta is a ball of energy, a woman who gave up a full-time job in order to stay at home and care for her husband and their son. She bounces back and forth between the garden and the house, doing all the cooking and cleaning.
Benton’s 72-year-old parents, Dottie and Chuck, allowed their son’s family to move in two and a half years ago. His father retired after 22 years in the U.S. Army as a non-commissioned officer who used to catch soldiers smoking pot and throw them in jail. His mother has been part of the same weekly prayer group for 40 years. Both were skeptical of Benton’s drug use at first.
Scott County authorities are prosecuting them all for growing the marijuana Mackenzie says provides his only relief.
He first tried pot when he was 16 as a recreational drug user. Even after he got in trouble with the law for growing psilocybin mushrooms in 2000, Benton grew marijuana at home. Pain from heart surgery was turning the longtime user into a medical marijuana advocate.
Police caught him again in 2010, when they lived in an apartment in Park View, Iowa. Police also charged Loretta, even though she said she never got involved in her husband’s drug activity.
They both say they pleaded guilty to avoid going to prison.
The 2010 arrest caused them to be evicted from their apartment, and they went to live with Benton’s parents nearby in Long Grove, in a woodsy pocket of homes nestled close to Scott County Park. Benton continued growing marijuana on his parents’ property.
Search warrants filed in Scott County District Court describe how sheriff’s deputy Dan Furlong, who began investigating Mackenzie’s drug activity in 2010, was determined to bring down a local conspiracy.
Furlong wrote that Mackenzie solicited a high school friend and convicted felon, Stephen Bloomer, to help him grow marijuana.
Deputies pulled Bloomer over in May and cited him for driving while barred. He drove a car registered to Mackenzie, Furlong wrote. Deputies also spotted Bloomer walking in the neighborhood of Mackenzie’s parents’ home at 27120 183rd Ave.
That was enough for Furlong to search Mackenzie’s trash cans, where he found marijuana stalks Mackenzie had stripped clean to make his medicine. Furlong used that evidence to obtain a search warrant.
“I woke up to a bunch of people screaming ‘search warrant!’” Mackenzie said. “They had me on the ground. They had my wife on the ground. They were throwing stuff around in my son’s room. I heard them trashing the house.”
Deputies seized 71 plants, growing equipment, a digital scale and paraphernalia in a motor home parked in the driveway, Furlong wrote. The motor home was registered to Bloomer’s mother in Davenport.
That led deputies to 1427½ Jersey Ridge Road, Davenport, where Bloomer lived with his mother. They seized marijuana there as well, Furlong wrote.
Prosecutors charged six people after the raid. Benton and Loretta Mackenzie and Bloomer all were charged with felony counts of conspiracy to grow and sell marijuana.
Police say pot was found in their son’s bedroom, so 21-year-old Cody Mackenzie is charged with a misdemeanor.
Benton’s parents are charged with hosting a drug house. They've hired an attorney, but their son is choosing to represent himself.
“My husband and I have been accused of running a drug house, because we allowed him to live here and treat his cancer,” Dottie Mackenzie said.
Scott County Sheriff’s Lt. Bryce Schmidt called Mackenzie’s a “medium-sized” pot-growing operation.
Hemp ointment provides relief
Mackenzie admits he grew marijuana. But he said he’s no drug dealer. He said he needs about three plants to extract 4 ounces of hemp oil, or about a week’s worth of treatment.
Court records include a 2011 diagnosis from a Massachusetts lab requested by Bettendorf dermatologist Dr. Manish G. Kumar of "high-grade cutaneous angiosarcoma." It’s a cancer of the blood vessels, in which tumors appear as skin lesions.
Mackenzie’s online research led to a recipe for the oil. If he rubs cannabis oil on the lesions and swallows the oil in capsule form, the lesions shrink and stop spreading. He also could manage his pain better with the cannabis oil than with narcotic prescription drugs.
He made the oil by boiling a mixture of raw plant material in isopropyl alcohol. He said he learned how from watching Rick Simpson’s online video “Run from the Cure.”
He grew plants from seeds he bought online, but said some strains of wild cannabis he found in Iowa worked as well.
Mackenzie reported his marijuana use to his cardiologist, Dr. Michael Gimbel of Davenport, whose office noted it on a list of medications included in the court record: “Cannabis, take as directed."
Gimbel did not return phone messages for this story. But other physicians nationally and in Iowa affirm the ointment’s medicinal value.
“Instead of putting this guy in jail, somebody should be studying him,” Dr. Charles Goldman, a cancer surgeon at Mercy Hospital, Des Moines, said of Mackenzie.
A 1981 Washington University, St. Louis, School of Medicine graduate, Goldman has treated angiosarcoma patients and doesn’t think Mackenzie’s claims of cancer-killing cannabis oil are far-fetched. Goldman said lab and animal research has been done showing that cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and cannabidiol, or CBD, block tumor proliferation in lung and breast cancer.
Legalizing medical marijuana would free up doctors to further research the drug’s benefits, he said.
Twenty states, including Illinois, have passed medical marijuana laws. Iowa and the federal government have not.
“I think Iowa is going against the current of history,” Goldman said.
Goldman doesn’t expect 20 percent of angiosarcoma patients to live beyond five years, and he said chemotherapy has only a 50 percent cure rate.
An oncology team at University of Iowa Hospitals in Iowa City recommended chemotherapy for Mackenzie, but he refused, believing the aggressive treatment might shorten his life span. He already has an artificial valve to manage a congenital heart defect.
He maintained his cannabis ointment remedy, saying it was his only source of relief. When Scott County deputies returned to his parents’ home in July to serve probation violation notices on him and his wife, they spotted a gram of marijuana on a coffee table and put the couple back in jail.
This time the bond was set at $5,000 each.
Cancer spreads during jail stay
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Thirty new lesions appeared while Mackenzie was in jail. Some had grown to about 3 inches wide. He said the pain was excruciating without the oil.
“I feel like I’m being held down to die,” Mackenzie said in an interview Aug. 19, his 39th consecutive day in the Scott County Jail.
“I feel like nobody really gives a damn, except my family,” he said at that time. “And now they’re in trouble for not kicking me to the street to die.”
A series of written messages between Mackenzie and a jail nurse was a futile cry for help. He wrote on July 20 that he was concerned about his cancer spreading, and that tumors on his rear were keeping him from lying down in his cell.
The nurse wrote back: “Lay down at assigned times.”
Ultimately, Mackenzie’s prosecutor intervened when he worried the county might get stuck with the cancer treatment bills.
Assistant Scott County Attorney Patrick McElyea requested his release “based on the possibility that medical expenses could range fairly high to deal with the cancer,” according to a field discharge report filed in court records.
McElyea declined an interview.
After 42 days in jail, Mackenzie was released without bond.
He saw his release as the first time prosecutors even acknowledged he had a disease.
“I’m praying for them, that they open their eyes and stop this persecution,” he said after his release.
His wife Loretta spent two months in the Scott County Jail, unable to raise the $5,000 bond.
Benton’s parents pleaded unsuccessfully with Loretta’s probation officer. After Benton got out, he tried to argue for his wife’s release at a bond reduction hearing, even presenting a note from an Iowa City oncologist.
“He requires a caregiver as his disease progresses. His wife is his caregiver,” Dr. Mohammed Milhem wrote to no avail.
She’d still be in jail, if not for an unsolicited credit card offer that came in the mail with a pitch of zero percent interest and a $5,000 limit. They maxed out the card to free her on Sept. 9.
Cancer spread to Benton’s liver and lungs by the time he went to a Sept. 6 appointment, and doctors were talking about the possibility of hospice.
What Benton was trying to accomplish in treating his cancer with cannabis oil is not only legal in states like California, it seems to be working, doctors say.
Dr. Jeffrey Hergenrather, a general practitioner in Sebastopol, Calif., said tumors stopped growing in his sarcoma patients after they started on cannabis oil. He even had a 2-year-old patient’s brain tumor disappear and credits the cannabis oil the child sucked off his pacifier because his parents refused radiation and chemotherapy.
“It’s very easy to recognize cannabis has a profound role in killing tumors,” said Hergenrather, a 1975 graduate of the Brown University School of Medicine, now the Warren Alpert Medical School, in Providence, R.I.
Patients in California can legally walk into a local dispensary and pay $60 for a 3-gram syringe of marijuana on a doctor’s recommendation, cancer survivor Michelle Aldrich of San Francisco said.
Her stage 3 lung cancer was treated last year and earlier this year with cannabis oil and chemotherapy.
“Did the oil save my life? I have no qualms about that one at all,” Aldrich said.
Benton Mackenzie said he would have liked to move to California, but leaving Iowa would violate his probation and put him back in jail.
“The whole system is handing him a death sentence,” Dottie Mackenzie said. “He wants to go to trial. He needs these people to hear there is hope for cancer. He was living proof that it worked.”