DAVENPORT | Even as he faced his final moments, Davenport-area medical marijuana advocate Benton Mackenzie's thoughts were of his wife and son and their future.
The 49-year-old terminal cancer patient who fought Scott County authorities over his efforts to grow marijuana for his own medicinal use died early Monday at home.
"I've got a big empty pit right in the middle of my chest right now," Loretta Mackenzie told the Quad-City Times hours after her husband's death.
She wants to have his remains cremated and his ashes spread in Arizona, where they met, as well as Oregon, where they made multiple trips last year seeking legal cannabis oil.
As news of his 2014 trial attracted national attention, Mackenzie became a lightning rod for medical cannabis rights in Iowa, where the drug still is illegal with one exception, for the treatment of intractable epilepsy.
"Here's an example of a state that will go after you relentlessly with no sympathy, no mercy," Iowa medical marijuana activist Carl Olsen said Monday.
As Mackenzie stood trial, his health deteriorated. The baggy sweatpants he wore masked huge cancerous tumors covering his rear and right leg, a symptom of the angiosarcoma he was diagnosed with in 2011. He was rushed to an emergency room in the middle of his trial for a blood transfusion.
Jurors were not allowed to hear any testimony about his health and convicted him along with Loretta for conspiring to grow marijuana. Their son, Cody, was convicted of drug possession. They all were sentenced to probation in September, and as his rare cancer progressed into the final stages, Benton Mackenzie spent the remaining months of 2014 mostly confined to a hospice bed at his parents' basement apartment in Long Grove.
Loretta Mackenzie said she watched her husband's health seriously decline since New Year's Day, adding that he stopped eating and taking his pain medication over the weekend. She could tell from the look in his eyes that he was near death, she said.
Sunday afternoon, she played songs by his favorite musician, Jack Johnson, and said she could see his foot slowly moving to the music under his bed sheets. She kissed him on the forehead, touched his arm and said, "I love you" as much as she could, even though he did not seem able to respond.
She and Cody stayed up Sunday night watching movies on the couch next to the hospice bed. Cody awoke his mother about 3 a.m. after finding that his father had passed away.
"We stayed up together and toasted him," Loretta Mackenzie said. "It's so surreal. It's hard to say goodbye. I know he's not in there anymore. He's in heaven with his favorite relatives. I have to keep that in mind in order to yank the sadness out."
Instead of a funeral, she wants to have a memorial service at home but hasn't yet decided on a day.
Benton and Loretta Mackenzie were married for 22 years. After his diagnosis, she became his caretaker. While he grew marijuana to create a medicinal oil that he could ingest and rub on his tumors, she was busy tending a vegetable garden, preparing meals, shopping and cleaning for her family as well as his elderly parents with whom they have lived since 2011.
She went to jail along with her husband after sheriff's deputies raided the home in 2013 and seized his plants. She faced the same charges as a co-conspirator even though he told deputies she had nothing to do with it.
She never left his side, and in the final months of his life, she devoted all of her energy to taking care of her husband.
"He was concerned about Loretta and what she was going to face," Dottie Mackenzie said, in recounting some of the final conversations she had with her son in the past week.
Benton Mackenzie's parents faced their own prosecution — misdemeanor counts for hosting a drug house that ultimately were dropped. Dottie Mackenzie said she hopes the same leniency will happen to Loretta and Cody Mackenzie, whose cases are wrapped up in appeals.
"Pardon or drop it," Dottie Mackenzie said. "I don't know what the justice system can do about it. Neither one of them are guilty of any of it."
Among the last things Benton Mackenzie said to his wife were words of encouragement. His comments echoed words he wrote to her in letters while they were in jail.
"He encouraged me a lot," she said. "He is just a remarkable man. I'm going to miss him a lot."
She'll miss how he used to don a traditional Scottish kilt and play bagpipes. Before cancer rendered him frail, he could pipe for hours from his once stocky, 6-foot-tall frame.
When he performed professionally, his wife acted as his "pipe steward" to collect tips. Most of the time, he piped to honor firefighters and veterans. For several years, he visited the Davenport Central Fire Station, which is across the street from the Scott County Courthouse, to pipe for the firefighters in memory of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Benton Mackenzie wasn't afraid to die, he revealed in multiple interviews with the Quad-City Times since he first shared his story in 2013.
"When the Lord takes me home, I'll be more than ready," he said after his release from jail in August 2013.
Dottie Mackenzie said her son's fight with cancer and prosecution were all part of God's plan, and he accepted that.
"He was at peace with it," she said.
- Story courtesy of the Quad-City Times.