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Among the new Iowa laws that took effect at the beginning of the current fiscal year on July 1, the act legalizing the use of cannabis oil for certain seizure disorders drew the most media attention. Senate File 2360 (full text) passed the Iowa House and Senate during the final hours of the 2014 legislative session. This week the Iowa Department of Public Health released draft rules on how Iowans can gain legal access to this drug derivative for medical purposes. This page on the Iowa DPH website contains details on how to obtain a "Cannabidiol Registration Card." Eligible Iowans will be able to pick up cards through their county's Iowa Department of Transportation office, because DOT offices are more accessible for many people.
During negotiations with Iowa House Republican leaders and staff from Governor Terry Branstad's office, the scope of Senate File 2360 was narrowed to cover only the use of cannabis oil (not marijuana in any smokeable form), and only for seizure disorders, meaning that roughly a few hundred Iowa families will benefit from the new law. But a criminal trial verdict that made headlines this week may spur future efforts to help the thousands of Iowans who seek to use marijuana to treat chronic or terminal health conditions. A Scott County jury convicted Benton Mackenzie, along with his wife and son, of drug charges for growing marijuana plants. Mackenzie's elderly parents are due to stand trial soon for allowing the plants to be grown on their property. The presiding judge didn't allow Mackenzie's attorneys to tell jurors he was growing the drugs to treat a rare cancer, because medical marijuana is not legal in Iowa.
Quad-City Times reporter Brian Wellner covered the Mackenzie case and discussed it on Iowa Public Radio this week. After the jump I've posted excerpts from a few news reports on the verdict. I agree completely with State Senator Joe Bolkcom, the leading advocate for medical marijuana in Iowa, who called the decision to prosecute Mackenzie and his family members a "waste of taxpayer money."
For background, I recommend listening to Iowa Public Radio's "River to River" program on July 11.
Last summer, a Long Grove resident was arrested after police found marijuana plants in his home. Benton Mackenzie claims his family grew the plants in order to treat a rare blood-vessel cancer. This past week, the jury reached a guilty verdict for Mackenzie, his wife and child. Host Ben Kieffer talks with Brian Wellner, crime reporter for the Quad City Times, about the circumstances, outcome of the trial and why the jury couldn't hear his primary defense.
Scott County Attorney Mike Walton spoke to Wellner for this July 10 story:
"It was a difficult case, but I don't see we had a choice," Walton said.
When Mackenzie's case came to Walton's office last summer following a county sheriff's investigation, the county attorney treated it as he would any marijuana conspiracy. Although sympathetic to his condition, Walton said Mackenzie still broke the law.
"If he's not prosecuted, do I prosecute anyone who claims to grow medical marijuana?" Walton asked. "Aren't I just changing the law for Scott County? And is that right, or should the law be changed in Des Moines for the whole state?
"Essentially, I'd be legalizing the growing of marijuana in Scott County on my own." [...]
Mackenzie, 48, and his wife, Loretta, 43, were convicted of felony manufacturing marijuana, conspiracy, violation of the drug tax stamp act and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Their son, Cody, 22, was convicted with misdemeanor possession of marijuana and paraphernalia.
From Grant Rodgers' report for the Des Moines Register:
Mackenzie believes the judge's ruling sealed his fate with jurors who might have been more sympathetic had they learned about his condition.
"I'm still flabbergasted about how a judge can court-order me to not tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth," he said outside the courthouse after the verdict. "It's an abomination of justice."
Much about Mackenzie's future will now be decided at an Aug. 28 sentencing hearing. Because of two earlier felony drug convictions, in 2000 and 2011, Mackenzie can be labeled a "habitual offender."
That label would carry a three-year mandatory minimum sentence if Mackenzie is sentenced to prison, although probation could also be an option, said Scott County Attorney Mike Walton. Walton declined to talk about what sentence his office would recommend, but said prosecutors will take both Mackenzie's failing health and his past crimes into consideration. [...]
Mackenzie's legal battles should be a sign to Iowans angered by the verdict that more work should be done to change laws, said state Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City. Bolkcom has previously introduced legislation to allow medical marijuana and called the prosecution of Mackenzie and his family a "waste of taxpayer money."
"This verdict really shows that we have work to do," he said in a phone interview Wednesday. "There are many Iowans I'm guessing that are illegally using cannabis to address their medical conditions who could find themselves in the same predicament as Mr. Mackenzie for simply trying to improve their quality of life and treat a debilitating condition."
Dr. Charles Goldman, a surgical oncologist at Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines, laments that Mackenzie's self-treatment ended with prosecution instead of scientific research. Although Mackenzie's claims that cannabis successfully reduced his tumor have not been scientifically verified, other research indicates that it's reasonable the marijuana helped, he said.
"To me, it's a shame that we're not seeing his situation as a research opportunity to learn on an actual human being," he said. "The fact of the matter is he's alive four years after his diagnosis, and he was not treated with any chemotherapy."
From Wellner's July 11 report for the Quad-City Times:
"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."
During the past year, State Senator Bolkcom brought Jenison to Iowa several times to explain and advocate for a New Mexico-style medical marijuana policy. Click here to watch Jenison discuss the issue.