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Q&A With Ann Marie Awad, the Host Of CPR’s On Something

We caught up with the longtime drug reporter to talk about weed and what we can expect from the podcast’s third season, which airs May 11.

If you live in the Centennial State, chances are you have an opinion about marijuana. That’s because, even if you don’t consume weed, pot, dope (whatever it is you call it), Colorado’s cannabis industry still somehow affects your life or someone in your life—from taxes and education policy to carbon emissions and substance laws.

Those connections are what Ann Marie Award explores in each episode of her podcast, On Something, for CPR. Since 2019, the New York native and longtime drug reporter, has been sitting down with historians, porn stars, chefs, cannabis experts, former smugglers, and prominent figures like Willie Nelson to talk about all things related to marijuana and other controversial substances.

Ahead of On Something‘s third season, which airs May 11, we caught up with Awad to chat about how she became known as the weed person, her favorite episode of the show, 4/20, and what we can expect in the newest season.

5280: What got you to start reporting on drugs?
Ann Marie Awad: In this upcoming season, you’re gonna meet a really old friend of mine who I met while I was a journalist in Baton Rogue. I had heard that there was this guy who was giving away free opioid overdose drugs to anybody who wanted it. So I called him up and I wanted to do a story about him. And it turned out that he was a recovering heroin addict himself, and it was the start of a beautiful treasured friendship, because he’s wonderful. But it also was the start of me sort of understanding that people who do drugs are also screwed a lot. People who come into contact with drugs in any way end up having their lives changed permanently, by the criminal justice system, health care system, in all kinds of ways. I started doing this at a time in my life where I realized that I had a lot of ideas about people who use drugs and a lot of those ideas were wrong. Then I moved to Colorado, where I worked for KUNC as an education reporter, and covered how pot legalization intersected with education. That was sort of my gateway drug [laughs] into more drug reporting.

What kind of themes have you noticed throughout reporting On Something and what can we expect in season three?
Season three, which focuses on social equity, will be the first time we have an official theme because it turns out that building a themed season is really hard. In our first couple of seasons, we were sort of figuring out what the show needed to be. In the first season, in particular, I wanted to get at questions that I knew a lot of people had about cannabis and about legalization. And we touched on bigger stuff like CBD and the medical industry. And in our second season…. again, building a theme season is hard and then a whole pandemic thing happened. I will tell you that the season that was coming together before the pandemic was going to sound really different. In a lot of ways, last season came together a little bit ad hoc to where there wasn’t so much of a plan but a lot of things were serendipitous like getting Willie Nelson.

Do you have a favorite episode so far?
My favorite episode of the last season is ‘At War with the War on Drugs.’ We were doing another episode about artists and creativity, and that’s originally how we were trying to book Fantastic Negrito [an award-winning blues artist from Oakland]. It was his booking person who came back to us and said, ‘You know, he’s actually way more interested in talking about the war on drugs and like criminal justice.’ I was like, ‘Oh, okay.’ Then we needed an expert voice so we spoke with Kassandra Frederique at the Drug Policy Alliance. This is somebody who has spent more than a decade passionately involved in drug policy reform. What we got from her was obviously a lot of really great wisdom and history and context but also her personal experience with police violence and the imminent threat of a police confrontation in her community. And it was almost like one of those episodes that stitched together well along the way. We had these common threads in both of their stories. It’s one of those ones that I look at and think, This is an example of us really doing what we do right.

What type of feedback have you gotten from communities of color?
It’s hard with the pandemic, we don’t get to see people’s faces or interact with people as much as we used to. But [feedback] has been pretty good. It’s really important for me, if we’re doing a season all about social equity, that like most— if not all—the people we talked to are Black or people of color.

Is there a new audience you’re hoping to reach in the new season?
I mean, I’m not gonna lie. Our audience is not as diverse as I would like it to be. And so my hope is that this season speaks to a lot more people than we have in the past. We’ve been making the same case for this show from the beginning, but I feel like this is going to be our strongest argument yet—that legalization affects everyone. So my hope is that just a bigger, broader audience tunes into at least some of these stories and hears things that can be translated across all kinds of economies, all kinds of occupations.

Will season three feature an episode on psychedelics?
It has been on the On Something to-do list since day one, and it’s finally going to happen. I’m thrilled that this is going to be an episode about equity and psychedelics specifically focusing on the question of: Alright, we have tons of data to show that legalizing cannabis made it super inequitable. Are we in danger of turning around and basically doing the same thing with psychedelics? We did the main interview for that awhile ago now, and it’s two activists in Baltimore who try to create psychedelic spaces for people of color. They have exclusive events just for Black folks. They talk about the fact it’s not just the inequity in the industry, it’s about how there aren’t spaces out there for Black people that are safe to engage in medicine. We talked a lot in the interview that while psychedelics are kind of having their goop moment [referring to Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness and lifestyle brand] in a lot of ways—and we use the goop theory intentionally—there’s danger there. We’re talking about plant medicines that have been a part of indigenous communities for many, many years, and lifting them out of those settings and putting them into…what? Into a dispensary? Into a clinical setting? We haven’t decided yet. And there’s kind of competing visions for what a legalized psychedelics world looks like. But then there’s also like the bigger question, too: Are we just going to piecemeal legalize things one-by-one in this country, and has that gone well? Or is it really time for us to start thinking about broader drug policy reform?

It was just 4/20. Did you do anything to celebrate this high, holy day?
You know, not on purpose. I went to re-up on weed early in the morning. And it’s because my neighborhood place has an early bird special. That’s right, I go buy my weed like I’m going to Denny’s.

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