National advocates watching Mackenzie case unfold

Brian Wellner, Quad-City Times

National advocates are closely watching how an Iowa cancer patient's marijuana case unfolds, hoping it will spur changes in drug laws.

A Scott County jury found Benton Mackenzie and his wife guilty this week on felony counts of growing marijuana at home. They say they will appeal.

"The fact he was not able to mount a medical necessity defense is a terrible shame," Dr. Steve Jenison, the former medical director of New Mexico's cannabis program, said, hearing of the case through news media.

Benton Mackenzie was diagnosed with angiosarcoma, a terminal cancer, in 2011. Iowa law does not allow marijuana use in treatment of cancer.

Scott County District Judge Henry Latham barred Mackenzie multiple times from telling jurors that he grew marijuana in order to treat his cancer with oil derived from the plant. Mackenzie could not even say he had cancer.

Jenison began the patient registry with qualifying conditions in New Mexico after lawmakers passed a comprehensive medical marijuana law in 2007. He says Mackenzie's condition would have been included in that registry.

"I feel fairly confident that when I was medical director, if he proposed he was deriving benefit from cannabis, he would have been granted a waiver to do that," Jenison said. "He would have been entirely legal in the state of New Mexico. In Iowa, he's a felon."

Twenty-three states, including Illinois, have passed medical marijuana laws. This week, New York became the latest state to do so.

In Iowa, a law took effect July 1 that allows a cannabis oil extract, cannabidiol, to be used only for those suffering severe epileptic seizures.

Robert Capecchi with the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C., called the outcome of this week's trial "egregious."

"He was rushed to the hospital in the middle of the trial, for crying out loud," Capecchi said.

Mackenzie was treated for anemia Monday at Trinity Bettendorf. Upon returning to court, he said he had been losing a lot of fluids, including blood, and his hemoglobin and potassium levels were very low.

Capecchi criticized Latham's necessity defense ruling, calling the decision "criminal, absurd and cruel."

"This might be one of those cases that spurs legislators to take another look at a medical marijuana law," Capecchi said.

Kris Hermes with Americans for Safe Access, a nonprofit patient advocacy organization, said he is pleased with the media attention of Mackenzie's case but is concerned for his future.

"It's a very sympathetic case," Hermes said. "That he's suffering a terminal illness and was denied a medical defense at trial is a travesty."