The Mackenzies are not going to prison, but they are not yet cleared for takeoff, either. Benton Mackenzie of Long Grove received approval this spring from the State of Oregon to receive a medical marijuana card, but it is not clear from the terms of the probation sentence handed down to him and his wife Tuesday if, or when, they will be allowed to get back to the pot-friendly state so he can treat his terminal cancer with cannabis oil.
"I'm booking the flight, just not sure for when," Loretta Mackenzie said Tuesday afternoon as she pushed her 48-year-old husband in a wheelchair away from the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport.
They hope their probation officers will OK the request, especially since they were approved to travel to Oregon on at least two occasions earlier this year, once as they awaited trial this summer and again prior to Tuesday's sentencing.
That decision is up to the Iowa Department of Corrections. Jim Wayne, the department's regional director, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Benton Mackenzie said his travel plans will be the first thing he discusses as soon as he meets with his probation officer. He said he was not sure how soon they will meet.
"He's aware of my condition," Mackenzie added.
The frail-looking Mackenzie suffers from the late stages of angiosarcoma, a type of cancer that causes large lesions on his skin. He has sought cannabis oil treatments, first on his own before he was charged with and convicted under Iowa law of growing marijuana to make the oil, and then through a physician in Oregon, who approved him for that state's services.
"I hope I'm the last person who has to go through this," the soft-spoken Mackenzie said of his prosecution.
The nation is split almost evenly, with 22 states legalizing medical marijuana, but Iowa remains among those that do not, except by allowing cannabis oil use for patients suffering severe epileptic seizures.
Mackenzie hopes his case may be the "straw that breaks the camel's back" in terms of changing Iowa laws, calling himself a "trailblazer."
Before the sentencing, he was not sure what sentence District Judge Henry Latham would hand down, especially since the judge had barred him from telling jurors why he grew marijuana or anything about his medical condition.
As a habitual offender due to prior drug convictions, Mackenzie faced 15 years in prison, with a mandatory three years before he would be eligible for parole. His wife faced five years in prison.
The couple had prepared for a prison sentence, even sitting down with Lisa Ann Warner at the Lederman Bonding Co. across the street from the courthouse an hour before their hearing. Warner advised them how to post an appeal bond.
At the hearing, in a courtroom full of supporters and the news media, Latham suspended the prison terms and sentenced both Benton and Loretta Mackenzie to three years of probation on Class D felony charges of manufacturing marijuana. He also suspended a one-year jail term for their 22-year-old son, Cody, and sentenced him to probation for misdemeanor possession of marijuana.
"I understand you suffer from a form of cancer," Latham told Benton Mackenzie in court. "But I took an oath to uphold the laws of this state."
Assistant Scott County Attorney Patrick McElyea recommended probation for both Benton and Loretta Mackenzie, as did their probation officers in sealed records that were filed before the hearing.
When given a chance to make a statement in court, Benton Mackenzie apologized for breaking the law, but he said the marijuana he grew helped keep him alive.
"This law, I had no choice but to break it or I'd be dead several times over," he said.
The typical survival rate for angiosarcoma patients is five years from the point of diagnosis. Benton Mackenzie was diagnosed in March 2011. The cause of his cancer is unknown.
Mackenzie also said he grew a specific strain of marijuana that is useless to anyone who wants to get high and also said he never sold or distributed the drug.
Latham said he could not ignore the size of the Mackenzies' marijuana-growing operation. In 2013, Scott County Sheriff's deputies seized 71 marijuana plants from the family's Long Grove home. The judge said no state, not even those with medical marijuana laws, allow patients to grow that many plants at home at one time.
"Right now my mind is completely wrapped up in what's going to happen to my husband," Loretta Mackenzie told the judge, adding that she "stood by and took care of him."
Benton Mackenzie said as he left the courthouse that he was "relieved" at the outcome, having expected his sentence would be much worse. Three years in prison would be a "death sentence," but so would staying at home in Iowa if he is unable to travel to Oregon, he said.