Front Range Focus: Colorado Public Radio Journalist, Ann Marie Awad
Marijuana has had a big impact on Colorado since the Centennial State approved recreational marijuana for sale on January 1, 2014.
Just look at some of these numbers. As of the end of January 2020, Coloradoans have been able to legally consume marijuana for 2222 days. In 2019, Denver’s marijuana sales tax revenue topped $50.7 (1) million, with the state’s revenue coming in at over $302 million (2). All told, marijuana has brought in over $1.2 billion in tax revenue since February 2014 (3).
But those numbers don’t tell the whole story of Colorado’s grand social experiment six years in, and they certainly don’t tell the whole story of legalization in America. One Front Range figure who is trying to tell that nuanced and evolving story is Colorado Public Radio journalist Ann Marie Awad.
Awad is a prize-winning journalist for Colorado Public Radio who has been reporting on issues that face Coloradoans since 2016. Before she landed in the Front Range, Awad earned her Master’s Degree from the SUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She was a reporter in both her native New York and in Louisiana and served as the WRKF “Morning Edition” host in Louisiana’s capital of Baton Rouge.
In 2016, Awad made her way to Greeley, Colorado and began reporting for KUNC. She first reported on stories such as ADA accessibility in Colorado parks and open spaces and inmates in Boulder County Jail writing comic books. Her diligent dive into Front Range issues earned an award from the Society of Professional Journalist for her general reporting and a Colorado Broadcasters Association award.
A feature on Rout County’s shrinking coal income affecting the school district’s budget highlighted a new focus for Awad in Colorado: education. She joined Colorado Public Radio in 2017 as the company’s education reporter and has touched on a number of stories connected to the Front Range over the years, including campus unrest at University of Northern Colorado, school board races in the Denver metropolitan area and the housing and financial issues that plague teachers and professors.
Like any good reporter, Awad has looked to the people of Colorado to tell her where the next story would be. As of now, they are pointing her in one direction that affects a lot of cultural, financial and political space in Colorado: marijuana. “I was an education reporter and I kept finding myself answering questions about the legal marijuana taxes that were supposed to be invested in schools here in Colorado. I started to get more and more interested in how regular people and their regular lives intersected with legal cannabis—this big wholesale change to our laws, our values and our economies. I just kept finding excuses to cover pot, and it all snowballed from there,” Awad said to Forbes in 2019. This fascination led to her to create the magnificent On Something Podcast.
With On Something, Awad tries to report on all the intricacies of society’s relationship with marijuana and the real-life impact it has on the day-to-day life of Americans across the country. In its first season, Awad touched on a number of under the radar issues they might not have made the headlines, like examining the ways in which a marijuana intersects with the LGBTQ community or the spiritual relevance of marijuana and its uses. One poignant episode told the personal stories of families in Colorado whose children require marijuana for medical treatment but are suffering from lack of access to a diminishing medical marijuana market in a time of recreational expansion. For at the end of the day, Awad knows the story of marijuana is really just the story of everyday people.
Awad was kind enough to relay her observations to Inside Out Perspective to give us an idea of the impact marijuana has had on Colorado and the country at large.
What issue has compelled you the most in how legal marijuana interacts with the public? How does that speak to who you are as a person and what you care about?
In America, we have legal weed in more than half of the country, and yet non-citizens could still find themselves deported if they come anywhere near it. How are they supposed to know? How is anyone supposed to know? This is why it’s an important issue for me to cover — it just seems like this horrible secret. I’m a child of immigrants and a first-generation American myself, so I guess it’s natural for me to care about these stories.
What do you think is one of the most prominent wedge issues that will come to fruition over the next couple months or years on how marijuana interacts with the public in Colorado?
I think on the national level we’ll probably start to see a critical mass building for some kind of banking regulation. Weed was legalized in Illinois this year and within the first few weeks you saw dispensaries get robbed. Right now there’s a spate of armed robberies of dispensaries in Denver. I think it’s legislation that’s already growing in popularity in Congress, and incidents like these will push the envelope even more.
The next couple of years in Colorado are going to be interesting. A growing issue here is creating public spaces to consume weed. Denver created a program for this after the 2016 election, but it’s widely considered unsuccessful since there’s only one license holder. But next year you have two laws going into effect that are going to be game-changers – one that allows for dispensaries to open up “tasting rooms,” and another that allows for weed delivery services. Our previous governor was opposed to these laws for years, and for years industry folks have been waiting for this to happen. What will be really interesting is to see how neighborhood and community groups respond to all new kinds of legal weed businesses sprouting up.
What do you think has been one of the biggest unintended consequences, whether positive or negative, of marijuana legalization that no one talked about back in the early 2010’s when they were advocating for legalization?
Just the fact that the legal marijuana industry is made up of mostly white people. And now the industry — at least here in Colorado — is matured to the point that the barrier for entry is pretty high. More states like Massachusetts or Illinois are trying to level that playing field, and find ways to get more people of color into the industry. But it’s still pretty bad here in Colorado, I think only two dispensary licenses in the whole state are held by black people.
For opponents to weed’s proliferation in Colorado, where do you think they have the strongest arguments for how it has negatively impacted the state? For advocates, where do you think they have the strongest arguments for how it has positively impacted the state?
I think opponents feel they have lots to point to, but I’d also be remiss if I didn’t point out that plenty of anti-pot groups cherry pick the data that best suits their agenda. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t say the same thing about some of the folks on the advocacy side. But I also think both sides make legit arguments. The anti-pot folks are concerned that there are products on the market that contain as much as 90 percent THC. I think that’s a fair concern! We have no data whatsoever on what that amount of exposure does to the body. The pro-pot folks are concerned about providing public spaces to consume legal weed. I also think that’s a fair concern! Right now, weed tourists are going to come to Colorado and consume their weed wherever they have to — why not make sure it’s not in the middle of the sidewalk?
What legal marijuana issue has the most gray area in your opinion? How might it be possible to better illuminate the sides and come to a consensus?
I think the issue of using marijuana during pregnancy, which we’re actually going to be exploring in our next season. I think it’s such a complicated intersection for lots of different reasons. It’s natural for folks to have sort of an immediate, gut reaction to an issue like this, but we want to tell this story our way. We want to be understanding of why a person would be using marijuana during pregnancy, and what other alternatives that may have considered. We want to acknowledge the fact that simply plucking a child out of the home in response to something like this also has negative impacts on a child’s development. I don’t know if it will help build consensus, but my hope is that it will at least make people much more thoughtful about this issue.
Time will tell how Colorado’s historic relationship with marijuana will change over the years, the pendulum is always swinging. This marijuana proliferation is still a relatively new phenomenon and as more information and statistics come in on its effects, we should each continue to reevaluate our personal views on the ways marijuana can be both beneficial or harmful to ourselves and society at large. Listening to our neighbors’ personal stories are an important part of that equation and Ann Marie Awad is one person the Front Range can count on to continue sharing different perspectives that can inform and influence our own.
The Front Range Focus is a profile series in which Inside Out Perspective brings you stories of people on the Front Range who are having a positive impact on this region’s culture. In ways both big and small, these movers and shakers are significant parts of the fabric of this community. We want to highlight their contributions to the arts, recreation, business, politics, education and everything else in-between in this unique and thriving area. These are stories of people just like you, these are the stories of the Front Range.
If you have any suggestions on figures who are having a significant impact on the region and would like to see highlighted, please let us know!
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