Another Casualty Of The 'War On Drugs'

Pardon the pun, but I'm going to be blunt . . . Marijuana is relatively harmless. Its most devastating effects unquestionably result not from its consumption, but rather from the legal ramifications imposed on those who use it. No one has ever died from cannabis, but people have had their lives ruined, and some were even killed, by marijuana laws.

Q: What's the difference between a drunk driver and a stoned driver?
A: The drunk driver runs the stop sign . . . The stoned driver comes to a complete stop, and waits for it to turn green.

One such example is Timothy Garron, who was prescribed medical cannabis as part of his treatment for liver disease. Months later, surgeons at the University of Washington denied him the liver transplant necessary to prolong his life. One thing about the liver . . . you can't live without one (that's why they call it a liver). So why did these doctors, supposedly sworn by their Hippocratic (or "hypocritical") oath to "do no harm" deny him this lifesaving procedure? It was because he tested positive for THC. The fact that it was medically-prescribed was of no concern to the Washington surgeons. They had absolute discretion, and they chose to let him die.

Despite reason, rationale, and widespread decriminalization efforts, the law is still the law, and the possession, distribution, and/or consumption of marijuana is still illegal.

Any American who enjoys even the occasional herbal remedy should know the Fourth Amendment (search and seizure) like he knows his own last name. But what do you do when you're already past the scenario of refusing a search? -- The police are at your door, they have a warrant, and you know exactly what they're going to find.

That is precisely the situation Rachel Hoffman, 23, faced last April in Tallahassee, FL. Arrested for possession of "about a baggie" of marijuana, as well as a few prescription pain killers, Tallahassee police convinced Rachel that she was looking at 4-5 years in prison. But they offered her a way out! If she would work for them as a confidential informant, the police assured her that they would make it all go away -- she wouldn't be charged with anything, and no one, including her parents, would ever know it happened.

On April 18, 2008, Rachel Hoffman entered into an informant agreement with the Tallahassee Police Department. Less than three weeks later, she was dead. Brutally murdered in a botched drug sting operation, Rachel was supposed to purchase 1,500 ecstasy pills, 2.5 ounces of cocaine and a firearm from two known drug dealers -- Andrea Green and Deneilo Bradshaw. She was given $13,000 cash and sent into the lion's den. She was wearing a wire, and was assured that law enforcement officers would be "all over her" and that she would be safe. The audio equipment the police were using to monitor the situation failed, unbeknownst to Rachel, and neither she nor any of the officers were familiar with the area in which the operation was conducted. The officers responsible for watching Rachel lost sight of her, and the targets changed the location of the meeting without their knowledge. The result: Rachel was alone. She thought the police were watching. She thought they were listening. But when she cried out for help as these two men shot and killed her . . . No one was there to hear her . . . No one was there to help.

A Grand Jury investigation into the incident found the Tallahassee Police Department to be negligent in both their review and approval of the plan, as well as their supervision of the operation. Their procedures were grossly inadequate to ensure Rachel's safety, and most were just ignored outright. The actions of the Tallahassee Police Department in this matter violated almost every provision of their "Buy-Bust Operation" policy. It was the responsibility of law enforcement to control the situation, but instead they handed control over to two criminals who robbed and killed Rachel Hoffman. Their conduct was unconscionable and it cost Rachel Hoffman her life.

Rachel was coerced into becoming a confidential informant, and even then, the agreement she signed wasn't much of an agreement. It required that she provide law enforcement with "substantial assistance" in apprehending drug offenders, but in no way defined what exactly constitutes "substantial assistance." It did not specify when she would be considered as having fulfilled that obligation, or what she was getting in return. The practical reality is that she signed on the dotted line and the police would use her and use her until she was all used up.

Rachel Hoffman's death has invited public scrutiny of the use of confidential informants. It is a surreptitious, pervasive and largely unregulated aspect of law enforcement that is now facing nationwide criticism, and the first dominoes of change have already fallen. The Office of the Attorney General of the State of Florida issued a review of this incident, and advised specific changes and enhancements to General Orders and Standard Operating Procedures governing the use of confidential informants, as well as explicit disciplinary actions for law enforcement officers' failure to adhere to those procedures. Additionally, the Hoffman family has established the Morningstar Foundation in the memory of their daughter, Rachel Morningstar Hoffman. Their goal is to implement legislation -- "Rachel's Law" -- requiring the advice of counsel before anyone enters into a confidential informant agreement with law enforcement.

Rachel Hoffman's case, like that of Timothy Garron, is a testament to the lack of wisdom that lies behind current marijuana laws. Still, though, I can't help but think that a little "Know My Rights" education could have saved Rachel Hoffman's life. If you're the subject of a police investigation, do not believe that the police are your friends or that they're acting in your best interests. When you're on the wrong end of a police interrogation, you absolutely need to exercise your right to remain silent and call an attorney. You need someone who knows the law to advocate for you. You need a lawyer.