Courtland Milloy
Courtland Milloy
Local Columnist

Taking a risk and paying respects to a dead friend

To reach the grave site of their friend Darius Cannon, the two youngsters went to a section of Washington National Cemetery in Suitland where plots are marked with plaques instead of headstones. They eventually found the name embedded in an open field and sat in the grass next to it.

Then they pulled out a Dutch Masters Chocolate Cigarillo and used the tobacco wrappings to roll a blunt. Marijuana smoke rose from the graveside as they listened to music from a CD player.

Courtland Milloy

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Cannon had been shot to death in April, not far from his home in Southeast Washington. He was 16. I’d met his friends at the burial a few weeks later. When I saw them again this month, they asked for a ride to the cemetery. (Because Darius’s homicide remains unsolved, I have not used the names of his friends.) Watching from curbside, I was awe-struck by their take on the timeless ritual we call paying respects to the dead.

And the risks they were taking by doing so.

Last month, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs released a study showing that, between 2009 and 2011, nine of 10 people arrested in the District on the charge of simple drug possession were black.

Roderic V.O. Boggs, executive director of the organization, said arrests for minor drug offenses and other petty charges have essentially “criminalized a large portion of the African American community.”

Even in Montgomery County, racial disparities in arrests for low-level drug offenses are stark. According to Eric Sterling, president of the Silver Spring-based Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, blacks made up 54 percent of the people arrested for marijuana in 2011, but the county is only 17 percent black.

“It blew my mind,” Sterling said. “I was outraged by the indifference to this kind of racial disparity in our criminal justice system.”

Responding to similar disparities across the country, Attorney General Eric Holder moved last week to eliminate harsh mandatory sentences for many low-level drug offenders.

“A vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities,” Holder said in a speech to the American Bar Association. However, “many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate this problem rather than alleviate it.”

At the grave site, the youngsters appeared oblivious to such concerns. They’d copped their marijuana at the public housing complex where they live — a place known to be under surveillance by law enforcement. A street buy gone bad could end with an arrest — or worse, their deaths.

A bill to decriminalize marijuana is pending before the D.C. Council. Passage would certainly alleviate some of the more egregious consequences. But youngsters who used the drug would still have no chance of getting a job that requires passing a urine test.

Nevertheless, the graveside scene reminded me of an urban version of the 1983 movie “The Big Chill,” about some former college pals who smoke pot while reunited for the funeral of a friend. Now that the baby boomers are all grown up, marijuana has given way to alcohol as the preferred lifter of sagging spirits. But what’s the difference? And is it enough to justify jail time for those who smoke instead of drink?

For the youngsters, this much was certain: Marijuana was as integral a part of their lives as alcohol is to the rest of society.

When they returned to the car, I asked about the music they had played. Turned out to be an especially mournful tune, a meditative dirge called “Song for Benjamin (Real),” by the rapper Lil’ Kim.

Before I took the mission to write this song about your death

Your tragedy and all the negativity about that night, about that fight

When you couldn’t keep on running for your life

That soon was taken and believe me when I say I’m not fakin’

No lie that I wanna cry, you were only 15

With so much to go, and so much to live

The song and sharing of the weed had filled a need born of circumstances that many of us could hardly imagine. Decriminalizing it would be the least we could do to stop making matters worse.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

 
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