A judge Tuesday gave probation rather than a prison sentence to a dying Iowa man convicted of growing marijuana and using it to treat his terminal cancer.
Benton Mackenzie, 48, could have faced three or more years in prison, which he said would amount to a death sentence.
The case has outraged advocates for medical marijuana, who gathered before the sentencing at a park near the courthouse to criticize the prosecution.
“People shouldn’t have to go to jail for trying to treat themselves,” said 25-year-old Chris Davis of Rock Island, Illinois, a former employee of a medical marijuana dispensary in California.
Judge Henry Latham was also expected to sentence Mackenzie’s wife, 43-year-old Loretta Mackenzie, and their 23-year-old son, Cody Mackenzie, at the Scott County Courthouse in Davenport.
All three were charged following a June 2013 raid at the Long Grove, Iowa, home where they live with Mackenzie’s parents, Dorothy and Charles Mackenzie. Sheriff’s deputies found 71 marijuana plants, growing equipment, drug paraphernalia and a small amount of marijuana in Cody’s room.
Mackenzie said he grew the plants to obtain cannabis oil that he used to treat his angiosarcoma, which causes skin lesions. He said the oil relieved his pain and helped to reduce the size of lesions.
At trial, Latham repeatedly barred Mackenzie from testifying about his cancer, noting that a medical necessity defense is not allowed in Iowa.
Jurors in July found Mackenzie and his wife guilty of manufacturing marijuana and related charges. Their son was found guilty of misdemeanor possession of marijuana.
Medical marijuana is not legal in Iowa, although a new state law allows the most severe epilepsy patients to use cannabis oil for treatment. The law doesn’t apply to cancer patients and didn’t help Mackenzie. After the trial he traveled to get treatment in Oregon, one of 23 states that permits medical marijuana.
More than 16,600 people signed a petition urging the Scott County Attorney’s Office to drop the charges. Others have contacted Gov. Terry Branstad to urge a pardon. A Branstad spokesman said it would be premature to comment since the case is still pending.
Scott County Attorney Mike Walton has defended the prosecution, saying he is enforcing the state’s marijuana laws as written. He has noted that Benton Mackenzie has two prior felony drug convictions from 2000 and 2011, which makes him a “habitual offender.”
Walton’s office recently dropped charges of hosting a drug house against Dorothy and Charles Mackenzie, who are in their 70s, stemming from the raid.