When Medical Marijuana Is Not State Law

In most of the 21 states with medical marijuana laws, the risk of federal prosecution has fallen on dispensaries and growers, while state-licensed patients who only purchase the drug through that state system are largely immune from criminal consequences.

But in those states with no medical marijuana scheme, the criminal consequences of marijuana as medicine are far more severe, as in the jailing of a terminally ill Iowa man, Benton MacKenzie, whose story has been followed by the Quad-City Times. MacKenzie suffers from painful cancerous growths that his doctors say will prove fatal. He extracts hemp oil from the plants he grows for both external application, and consumption, both of which he says are critical for managing his disease. His use of the drug for medical reasons is even recorded in records from one doctor as, “Cannabis, take as directed.”

Starting in 2010, when MacKenzie was arrested for growing marijuana in his home, both he and his wife have seen jail time, eviction, and no way out. After police charged both MacKenzie and his wife, although she was not involved in the growing or consumption, they said they both pled guilty to avoiding going to prison. But their guilty plea led to their eviction instead. They moved in with MacKenzie’s parents, where police later seized 71 marijuana plants and charged his parents with running a drug house. Because MacKenzie extracts hemp oil from the plants to treat his growths, he said he needs about three plants a week. That puts his marijuana growing in the felony class, and subjects him and his family to serious criminal repercussions.


Local doctors confirmed the value of hemp ointment. “Instead of putting this guy in jail, somebody should be studying him,” Dr. Charles Goldman, a cancer surgeon at Mercy Hospital, Des Moines, told the Quad-City Times. Of Iowa’s marijuana prohibition, he said, ““I think Iowa is going against the current of history.”

Over the course of his treatment, MacKenzie has been arrested and jailed a number of times. While there, and without access to the ointment, his lesions became large and painful. His wife would still be in jail if the family hadn’t taken advantage of an unsolicited credit card offer that came in the mail and maxed out the credit card to pay her bail.

If MacKenzie could, he would move to another state with a medical marijuana law. But doing so now would violate his probation. He will go to trial on felony marijuana charges next month, and is hoping the judge will entertain his medical arguments in spite of the absence of a medical marijuana law.

Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent announcement that he will scale back prosecution of state-compliant medical marijuana actors may spare some from the harshest federal penalties. But it will not change matters for those like MacKenzie, in states without their own medical law.