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Hot. Sticky. Just plain ick of a drive in search of answers and a need to meet the Mackenzie family face to face. Dragging my husband along on an especially muggy day, we headed to visit with Benton, his wife Loretta, their son, Cody and Benton’s parents, Dorothy and Charles Mackenzie. I honestly don’t have the grandest of social skills and I tend to be anxious around strangers; as we drove down the very narrow and clearly marked private drive to the home of Miss Dorothy and Charles, it almost seemed as if we were somewhere we should not be.
Every few feet there were signs noting that we were on private property – the private property of each homeowner on that narrow little road. As we pulled in to the drive of the home located near the Scott County Park, I saw a tall man that I recognized to be Benton Mackenzie with a set of bagpipes. I was intrigued and yes, I momentarily thought, wow is this guy eccentric or what? Because yes, I’m a small town Iowa girl and bagpipes aren’t something I see every day. I would later learn from Miss Dorothy that Benton plays them as therapy for his lungs as he has a congenital heart defect.
First, a few facts in case you’re not aware of the Mackenzie Family’s fight. Benton suffers from angiosarcoma, he was diagnosed officially in 2011. Angiosarcoma is a cancer of the inner lining of the blood vessels. It is a rare cancer and in most patients and as is Benton’s case, it is terminal. Currently Benton is at stage IV and is losing his battle with cancer due to lack of the treatment that kept him at stage I for over two years – cannabis oil and raw juice from young cannabis plants, specifically, a strain high in cannabidiol (CBD).
In 2011, Benton and Loretta were convicted of similar charges to what they currently face, but in an effort to keep Benton out of prison and alive, they accepted a plea agreement and found themselves on probation. As any person who found an effective and safe alternative to chemotherapy and radiation would, Benton went back to growing and healing himself using cannabis. Enter the Scott County sheriff’s office and Sheriff’s Deputy Dan Furlong. The man has been passionate about exposing these people as the criminal masterminds they are and making Scott County safer by putting the dangerous drug ring out of commission.
Yep, I’m being cheeky because it is a ridiculous notion, especially after you spend time with this family. Mr. Furlong claims to have received a tip and then took it upon himself to search the garbage at the Mackenzie residence. The trash cans are on private property but still, Furlong helped himself to their trash and low and behold, found plant material left over from juicing. The family has been aware of the surveillance since 2011; deputies have been confronted on more than one occasion by both the Mackenzies and neighbors for being on private property without a legitimate reason, invitation or warrant.
The discovered plant material resulted in a search warrant and the seizure of 71 plants in various phases of development; as many as 10 plants had no established root system and the oldest plants were in week six of vegetation. This is where you should educate yourself if you are unaware of the growing process of marijuana and exactly why this is going down as it is – a gross and unjust decades-long smear campaign against a plant. It has resulted in so much misinformation, and the majority of those reached and impacted have bought it hook, line and sinker.
Simply understanding the dynamics of this plant and how it develops in addition to what it can and perhaps more importantly what it cannot do shines a glaring light on just how incredibly wrong the prosecution, the persecution of this family truly is. To those in the know, it could be easily determined that what was going on was nothing more than adherence to a rather strict regimen for treating cancer. There was no distribution, no sales, no intent of any kind other to live for as long as he could and to do so in peace.
In June of 2013, Benton Mackenzie was charged with multiple counts of class D felonies ranging from controlled substance violations, conspiracy to commit a felony, failure to affix a tax stamp and lessor charges of drug paraphernalia. One of the law enforcement officers at the time of arrest asked Benton why hadn’t he just moved to Colorado; evidently the terminally ill aspect was lost on the officer (and really, why should any of us have to move for medical care and treatment?). Loretta has herself been charged similarly although she had no part of the growing, she did not aide in making the medication, and she did not provide any type of support other than that of a loving wife staying impressively strong at the prospect of losing her husband.
Cody was charged with possession, and a friend who had been helping Benton grow was also charged. The patriarchs of the family have both been charged with one misdemeanor count of gathering for the use of marijuana (I tried to picture Miss Dorothy throwing a wild pot party and yeah, I couldn’t even imagine such a thing) and a class D felony, gathering for use of drugs. I heard very believable stories of staged photos, guns legally owned by Charles that were confiscated, pictures of a closed container allegedly found in Cody’s room, but no pictures of the contents only testimony that it was less than a gram and money seized in the amount of $400 that was never listed as evidence but was removed, earmarked by Charles for the family’s Christmas.
But you know what the Scott County Sheriff’s office didn’t do? They didn’t confiscate the equipment Benton had been using to make his cannabis oil. The equipment that was in sight, that had residue on it, the same type of equipment that they did confiscate when they busted him for treating his cancer in 2010. The Mackenzies believe, as do I, that the equipment was left alone this time because its very existence proves that Benton was indeed cultivating, producing oil, raw juicing and treating himself with it and not, in fact, distributing it. Weird.
There are many weird caveats to this story, many inconsistencies and some outright mind blowers. Enough so that the Mackenzies believe they are part of a much grander plan. When you consider that in May, Scott County Judge Henry Latham barred Benton as well as his codefendants from using medical marijuana as a defense, you begin to believe the same. Benton was not allowed to so much as mention why he was growing marijuana if it in anyway pertained to his cancer, his health condition, or medical marijuana, period.
He was not allowed to say that he is dying of cancer, and the judge did a remarkable job of shielding the jury from knowledge of Benton’s status as terminal even when Benton had to be taken by ambulance to the hospital during his trial last week. The judge denied a motion filed asking to allow the information concerning Benton’s illness and that he was treating himself with cannabis oil to be introduced, even citing the recently enacted Iowa Medical Cannabidiol Act signed on May 30 by Governor Terry Branstad. Benton, Loretta and Cody were all found guilty as charged and await sentencing on August 28. The trial of Dorothy and Charles Mackenzie begins July 21. If you’re in the area, feel free to stop by the Scott County Courthouse in support. Heck, bring a sign and a few others along with their own signs!
There was another special lady present who shall remain nameless but who has been instrumental in organizing support for the Mackenzie family. My husband and I were warmly welcomed, and there was not a bit of anxiety on my part, something that very seldom happens when I meet new people. I was genuinely at ease, and my disbelief at how perfectly normal this family was lasted the entire afternoon. The Mackenzie home was an inviting place; it could have easily been the home of an aunt or my grandparents. It was obviously a family home, and I felt comfortable and as if I was exactly where I needed to be. It was one of those weirdo goosebumpy feelings that sometimes comes over me when I need to pay attention to something very important.
Miss Dorothy told me of how she and her husband of over 50 years had met; they were pen pals while Charles was in the service overseas, stationed in Germany. She told me of how she had secretly planned their wedding and unbeknownst to her, he had put in for leave for June, to “get married.” It was fabulously romantic, like the plot of a movie. Charles began to tell me about what had been going on in his family over the past year and I listened intently as he told me one head shaking thing after another.
When Mr. Mackenzie told me about and then produced for me the summons he was served with at the close of his son’s trial on July 9, the story took on a tone of something more sinister than I had expected and more wrong than I could have imagined. The summons was a revocation of his permit to carry a concealed handgun and written on the summons it states the reason as “Convictions on this date 7/9/2014”.
Charles is a decorated Vietnam Veteran; he sacrificed over twenty years to the United States of America in his role within the Army and then continued to work for the Department of Defense after retiring from the service. Please keep in mind that these weapons were legally owned and properly secured during the two years after the 2011 convictions. Benton has been a convicted felon and the guns were in the same home, a fact the sheriff’s office was aware of. So why now? Why would his right, one he fought to defend (hey, did I mention Charles has never in his life used marijuana?) be stripped before his own trial even began? An excellent question that not even Mr. Mackenzie is able to answer.
As the afternoon passed, the Mackenzie’s tale was peppered with funny stories, pictures of a 102 year old grandmother parasailing, herbal remedy suggestions for overly active little boys (we are going to definitely be trying out lemon balm) and laughter. There was a lot of laughter considering the circumstances. It was a humbling experience that spoke directly to my soul, and I believe perhaps the greatest reason given was the faith of the entire family. Miss Dorothy spoke so lovingly of the family’s prayer group and their nondenominational church based in Houston, Texas. “The family has grown so much over the past year” Miss Dorothy beamed. When she spoke of God’s greater plan for the family and the purpose they all feel they are serving, the grace and the honest humility were almost overwhelming.
Charles was visibly upset when he looked me in the eye and said, “By the time we get an answer to all of this, it will probably be too late for Ben. But it will help others.” For Miss Dorothy and Charles who had spent a lifetime believing how most of us have, it’s especially touching to see the change their son’s illness and use of cannabis has brought about in them both.
“For 30 years I would have never tolerated Ben’s use,” Charles said, but Charles has witnessed the miracle that medical marijuana is. The family has been strong in their fight, refusing any type of plea agreement and actually rejoicing in the fact that court has played out the way it has. Had the case been allowed to “go away” as it did in 2011, the family believes they would be unable to get the truth out in regard to cannabis and that would be a disservice to those in true need. I left there feeling as though I had been spiritually guided to be there.
The details of this case are many. I could easily write another hour or so just on my experience with this remarkable family, but I would like for my main message here to be one of support and in determination to grow the efforts already made by a few on behalf of this family. We all have the privilege and the responsibility to stand up for ourselves and what we believe to be true and just. I say privilege rather than right because this particular story clearly demonstrates that what one may believe to be a right, isn’t necessarily so given the circumstances.
I always believed that as an American, I had the right to defend myself and the right to a fair trial, but I have learned otherwise. Let’s work together, and let’s help one another stand up and loudly say “no more.” No more of this failure that is the war on drugs. Not one more minute will we take the injustices of this country. Cannabis is medicine and it’s being withheld from so many of us. We can no longer sit back and be accepting of how things are just because it’s how things have been.
If you want to support the Mackenzie family and get updates about their legal struggle, you can follow the Free Benton Mackenzie Facebook page here.
The Libertarian Party of Iowa is calling on the Governor to pardon Mackenzie. You can sign that petition here. There is also a petition on Change.org directed to Scott County Attorney’s office that has been gaining momentum. Please sign and show your support for the Mackenzies.
UPDATE 7/16/14: The Mackenzie family announced via Facebook that charges against Charles and Dorothy have been dropped. Benton, Loretta, and Cody have not had their charges/cases dropped.
Photo Credit: Emmanuel Huybrechts under (CC BY 2.0) via Wikimedia Commons