The Killing of Rachel Hoffman and the Tragedy That Is Pot Prohibition

Police caught Hoffman with pot but promised to drop charges if she agreed to go undercover in a drug bust. She was killed soon afterward.
Rachel Hoffman is dead. Rachel Hoffman, like many young adults, occasionally smoked marijuana.

But Rachel Hoffman is not dead as a result of smoking marijuana; she is dead as a result of marijuana prohibition.

Under prohibition, Rachel faced up to five years in a Florida prison for possessing a small amount of marijuana. (Under state law, violators face up to a $5,000 fine and five years in prison for possession of more than 20 grams of pot.)

Under prohibition, the police in Rachel's community viewed the 23-year-old recent college graduate as nothing more than a criminal and threatened her with jail time unless she cooperated with them as an untrained, unsupervised confidential informant. Her assignment: Meet with two men she'd never met and purchase a large quantity of cocaine, ecstasy and a handgun. Rachel rendezvoused with the two men; they shot and killed her.

Under prohibition, the law enforcement officers responsible for brazenly and arrogantly placing Rachel in harm's way have failed to publicly express any remorse -- because, after all, under prohibition Rachel Hoffman was no longer a human being deserving of such sympathies.

Speaking on camera to ABC News' "20/20" last week, Tallahassee Police Chief Dennis Jones attempted to justify his department's callous and irresponsible behavior, stating, "My job as a police chief is to find these criminals in our community and to take them off the streets (and) to make the proper arrest."

But in Rachel Hoffman's case, she was not taken "off the streets," and police made no such arrest -- probably because, deep down, even they know that people like Rachel pose no imminent threat to the public. Instead, the officers on the scene secretly cut a deal with Rachel: They told her that they would not file charges if she agreed to go undercover.

Rachel became the bait; the Tallahassee police force went trolling for sharks.

In the weeks preceding Rachel's murder, police told her to remain tight-lipped about their backroom agreement -- and with good reason. The cops' on-the-spot deal with Rachel flagrantly violated Tallahassee Police Department protocol, which mandated that such an arrangement must first gain formal approval from the state prosecutor's office. Knowing that the office would likely not sign off on their deal -- Rachel was already enrolled in a drug court program from a prior pot possession charge, and cooperating with the TPD as a drug informant would be in violation of her probation -- the police simply decided to move forward with their informal arrangement and not tell anybody.

"(In) hindsight, would it have been a good idea to let the state attorney know? Yes," Jones feebly told "20/20." Damn right it would have been; Rachel Hoffman would still be alive.

But don't expect Jones or any of the other officers who violated the department's code of conduct -- violations that resulted in the death of another human being -- to face repercussions for their actions. Obeying the rules is merely "a good idea" for those assigned with enforcing them. On the other hand, for people like Rachel, violating those rules can be a death sentence.

Of course, to those of us who work in marijuana law reform, we witness firsthand every day the adverse consequences wrought by marijuana prohibition -- a policy that has led to the arrest of nearly 10 million young people since 1990. To us, the sad tale of Rachel Hoffman marks neither the beginning nor the end of our ongoing efforts to bring needed "reefer sanity" to America's criminal justice system. It is simply another chapter in the ongoing and tragic saga that is marijuana prohibition.
Paul Armentano is the deputy director for the NORML Foundation in Washington, D.C.