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April 19, 2022
What A Day
Puff Puff Pass Laws Decriminalizing Weed

In This Episode

  • Hours after a federal judge in Florida overturned the CDC’s mask mandate for public transportation, airlines like Delta and United made masks optional. Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, host of Crooked’s “America Dissected,” gives some advice to help you make your own decision on whether to stay masked.
  • In headlines: President Biden announced actions toward federal student loan debt forgiveness, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis escalated his war with Disney, and Blac Chyna’s $100 million lawsuit against the Kardashian family started.
  • And an interview about the effort to decriminalize marijuana, and the disproportionate rate at which Black Americans are convicted of marijuana possession. Linn Washington Jr, a long-time investigative reporter, joins us to discuss how far we have and haven’t come on the issue.


Show Notes:


  • Linn Washington Jr: “Equity in marijuana legalization must prioritize inclusion, expungement, and diverting revenues from police” – https://bit.ly/3uVNOG5
  • ACLU: “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform” – https://bit.ly/3JYQ3wA
  • The Marshall Project: “Will Drug Legalization Leave Black People Behind?” – https://bit.ly/3L65sgk


Follow us on Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/whataday/







Tre’vell Anderson: It’s Wednesday, April 20th. I’m Tre’vell Anderson.


Priyanka Aribindi: And I’m Priyanka Aribindi, and this is What A Day, where we celebrated 4:20 by writing the script for today’s episode on a blacklight poster.


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah, it’s a felt poster and we’re reading it from here on the ground where we’re lying flat on our backs, on beanbag chairs. It’s super comfortable.


Priyanka Aribindi: Promise this will not affect our read of today’s news.


Tre’vell Anderson: On today’s show, President Biden clears away the student debt of more than 40,000 borrowers. Plus the effort to expunge the records of people with past marijuana convictions.


Priyanka Aribindi: But first, the masks are off and to some, that is great news.


[Delta flight announcement] Masks will be optional this evening for all crew and passengers as well. [cheer, a couple of claps]


Priyanka Aribindi: OK, so those are some cheers from one Delta flight yesterday. However, even though you can take your mask off, does that mean that you should?


Tre’vell Anderson: No, it does not. So to remind people of the news, on Monday, a federal judge in Florida overturned the CDC’s mask mandate for public transportation—that covered planes, airports, busses, subways, and more. That mandate was originally set to expire in a couple of weeks, on May 3rd. A few hours after the ruling was announced, airlines like Delta and United made masks optional. So did transit authorities, including those in D.C. and California’s Bay Area. They’re optional for Amtrak riders too, as well as Uber and Lyft passengers. Here’s some commuters that the AP talked to who were happy to quote unquote “free their faces.”


[male] It’s about time.


[woman] I just don’t like wearing a mask, and I’m happy about it.


[male 2] I think it’s the right thing to do. I think the CDC overreacted.


[woman] This is adding to my pleasure of flying again.


Priyanka Aribindi: All right. I don’t know if flying is supposed to be a fun experience in general. It’s really just more about transportation. I don’t think it’s like, a thrill. But anyways, despite the ruling, some cities kept mandatory mask rules in place. In New York City, for example, people riding subways, busses, and taxis must have them on, as do people in Chicago. The AP also heard from these people who say they’re going to keep their masks on despite the mandate going away.


[female voice] I was wearing my mask today and I will continue wearing it.


[male voice] It’s my own interest, as well as the interests of other passengers to wear masks.


[female 2] I’m a teacher. I still teach with this on. I’m still going to ride the train with it on.


Tre’vell Anderson: I’m with them. I refuse to be caught slipping. We also saw a number of health experts quoted in news outlets who said that the ruling had them concerned. So we’re going to bring in Crooked’s favorite health expert to weigh in and give you advice to help you make your own decision. Dr. Abdul El-Sayed is an epidemiologist and host of Crooked’s pod, “America Dissected”. Welcome back to What A Day.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, hello there, Tre’Anka.


Tre’vell Anderson: Hey! [laughs] All right, Abdul. So COVID cases have been trending upwards in recent weeks, although reported hospitalizations and deaths are heading downward. So as a public health expert, what was your take on the ruling?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I just feel like this is a little bit premature if we weren’t headed into what looks to be a potential wave, I’d feel a little bit better about this. And the other issue is not just that the masks are coming off right now, it’s also that the ruling was written in such a damning way that it basically second guesses the CDC’s right to even mandate masks in the future.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And that, to me, is really dangerous considering the fact that we don’t know what the future looks like with this pandemic. And so the CDC ought to retain that capacity. And after all, the thing I want people to remember here is that it’s not just what we do for ourselves—though masks do protect us from COVID—it’s also what we do for everyone around us. The classic public policy adage is that my right to swing my fist ends where your face starts. So my right to breathe my COVID-infected air ends where your lungs starts. It’s the same point here. And so it’s not just about what we do for ourselves. The CDC is not just mending the eating this for ourselves, it is mandating our capacity to maintain a healthy and safe environment in the context where, of course, on airplanes, air is being recycled over and over and over again, and so keeping that air COVID free is critical.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. Here is a clip of President Biden talking to reporters about this issue yesterday:.


[voice] Mr. President, should people continue to wear masks on planes?


[clip of President Biden] Well, it’s up to them.


Priyanka Aribindi: I, myself have a flight tomorrow. I’m not feeling particularly inclined to take my mask off, but if masks are optional, what is the risk if I or, you know, the people around me aren’t wearing one?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, this just puts an onus on wearing one of those, well-fitting N95 masks. We know that those masks will protect you for a long period of time from being exposed, even if someone in shared space is breathing COVID-infected air out of their lungs. And so that really is critical. So if you’re still flying with one of those cloth masks and you’d like to wear a mask, make sure that you make it a well-fitting N95. Like we talked about, right, this isn’t just about protecting oneself, it’s also about protecting everyone else. And certainly when everyone is wearing a mask, it makes it that much less likely for COVID-infected air to circulate. But the fact of the matter is, is that this is where the ruling is. The Justice Department isn’t even going to attempt to get a stay, meaning this is where we are going to be for the near future here. And so I, personally, if I were getting on a flight tomorrow, I would bring my KF94, which is my trusted go-to mask that I wear and I would certainly would make sure to wear it in the airplane. And frankly, the reality is, as I’ve been on enough flights now to know that, you know, people see having food in front of them as a pretense to go mask free anyway.


Priyanka Aribindi: Right.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: But the fact that there are going to be a number of people not wearing masks makes me much more likely to be very careful taking mine off.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, like the COVID doesn’t stop just because they’re like peanuts or like cookies in front of you. Like that’s just not how it works.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: You didn’t know those Biscoff cookies were like just like masks? They’re not, just to just to clarify.


Tre’vell Anderson: So outside of mass transit situations, what’s a good rule of thumb on the best places to keep the mask on hand? And why?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Think about it this way? One really helpful analogy is that imagine a circumstance where if someone was smoking, you would start to smell and taste that smoke. That is a helpful way to think about the spread of COVID. So if you were to be able to smell and taste someone else’s smoke, you have the high likelihood of breathing their air if they were to be COVID-19 infected. And so places where you’re spending a long period of time that are not well ventilated with a lot of people are places where the highest risk of potential public transmissibility exists. And so certainly, airplanes are that to me. You’re flying in a small metal tube with hundreds of other people for a long period of time where they recycle the air. But also thinking about crowded spaces that are relatively tight without high-quality ventilation, And if I’m in a shopping mall or a tight convenience store where I’m going to be for, you know, more than five minutes, those are the places where I’m indoor masking now. The truth of the matter is the benefits of wearing a mask really stay the same, but the costs are individual. People will find wearing masks more or less frustrating or annoying and so you really have to weigh that for yourself. But the places where the benefits are the highest are the places where you’re at the highest probability of contracting, and those are the places where you’re breathing a lot of air that a lot of other people are breathing, too.


Priyanka Aribindi: That smoke analogy, I feel like, is really helpful to assess. In terms of cases and stats, what would you want to see, you know, before you’re comfortable with all mandates going away?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: That implies that I’m looking at it from the present to forecast of the future. And as I’ve said, pandemics are really only declared over well into the future from where you sit. And so we’re going to look back at this at some point and there won’t have been a number of surges or even increases in cases and say that was the point that the pandemic ended. But from where we sit right now, given the fact that cases are going up, and actually over the last two days, according to CDC data, hospitalizations are starting to tick up as well—given that that’s where we are right now, it’s certainly not right now. And so I worry that social contagion is a real thing. People take cues from the people around them, and there has been this real push to argue that the pandemic is now over and that’s just not what the evidence is telling us. And even though it looks like we’re not likely to have surging cases, there are a lot of ways that the data that we have right now may be an underestimate of what actually exists in our communities. And B, cases are still increasing. And given that cases are increasing, the probability of being infected, the potential of infecting someone who is potentially at risk of a serious outcome or is immune-deficient, still remains high. And there’s always the risk of long COVID. And so, you know, to me, I don’t find wearing a mask all that onerous, and I have a daughter who is four-years old, who can’t yet be vaccinated and so, you know, we’re wearing our masks in crowded indoor settings and will continue so long as cases remain on the upswing.


Tre’vell Anderson: All right. Well, that’s Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, an epidemiologist and host of Crooked’s pod, America Dissected. If you aren’t already subscribed to his show, do it now. The latest episode is all about how we treat and manage pain. Thanks, Abdul.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Appreciate you all.


Tre’vell Anderson: And that is the latest for now. Let’s get to some headlines.


[sung] Headlines.


Tre’vell Anderson: Russia announced it entered a new phase in its invasion of Ukraine yesterday. Starting on Monday night, Russia upped its number of missile and artillery strikes along a nearly 300-mile front line, with the goal of capturing the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in eastern Ukraine. Russia claims it struck more than 1,000 targets, although a BBC report says Ukrainian forces are quote, “well dug in.” Meanwhile, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen announced she’ll boycott several meetings of the Group of 20 or G-20 conference this week in D.C.. That’s because this gathering of finance ministers from around the world will include a representative from Russia. She plans to attend some of the sessions to show support for Ukraine’s finance minister, but a Treasury Department official told The Washington Post that Yellen would sit out many other meetings where her Russian counterpart is scheduled to attend to quote, “voice our strong condemnation of Putin’s brutality.”


Priyanka Aribindi: President Biden’s Department of Education announced actions yesterday that will bring 3.6 million recipients of federal student loans at least three years closer to debt forgiveness. An additional 40,000 borrowers will receive forgiveness immediately. The changes will correct administrative errors previously made by the Education Department’s Office of Federal Student Aid, which failed to direct borrowers towards what are called “income-driven repayment plans.” Had the borrowers known about these plans, they could have started earning credit towards debt relief sooner. Yesterday’s move was emblematic of Biden’s piecemeal approach towards cutting down on student loan debt. Also yesterday, the Biden administration announced it has restored requirements of an over 50-year old law called the National Environmental Policy Act. These protections were removed by Trump—who as we know, hates trees because he wants his skyscrapers to be the only things that are tall. The law will now require major infrastructure projects like pipelines and highways to have their environmental impacts to be assessed before they are approved—I don’t know how that wasn’t the standard forever, but fine—i.e. by calculating the greenhouse gases those projects could emit over the course of their lifetimes.


Tre’vell Anderson: Elected Florida Republicans are doing exactly what taxpayers send the millions of dollars each year to do: fight with a talking mouse in red shorts. Yesterday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis escalated his war with Disney by asking lawmakers to eliminate the special legal status that Disney World has had in the state for over half a century. Until now, Disney has been basically exempt from all state regulation and has been able to govern its own properties. Last month, the company’s CEO, Bob Chapek, unknowingly put the exemption on the line when he announced Disney would stop making political donations in Florida after decades of giving generously to Republicans, including DeSantis. Capek’s objection was to the Don’t Say Gay bill, which bans schools from teaching young kids about sexual orientation and gender identity. And yesterday’s action by DeSantis was his way of saying that if Disney won’t support him in his party’s war on young people, he won’t let them keep their exemption. If the DeSantis-backed bill passes, it will go into effect on June 1st. But you wouldn’t know about the drama associated with that looming deadline if you stopped by Disney parks, where things have only gotten more joyous over the past few days, with the distinct uptick in physical embraces between visitors and giant six-foot tall dog ducks and rodents. Hugs between kids and mascots have resumed at parks, cruise lines, and resorts after a two-year ban because of the pandemic. It’s a welcome change for all the little kids who could only scream “Let it go!” At Elsa from six feet away.


Priyanka Aribindi: I’m a little nervous for all these mascots. All these people who will suddenly be—.


Tre’vell Anderson: Accosted.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, accosted by these children. The lawyer retained by the Kardashian family better get their ass up and work because the trial is now underway in Blac Chyna’s $100 million lawsuit against the family. Chyna used to be married to Rob Kardashian, and like all great romances, theirs was documented by a thousand producers and a camera crew on a 2016 reality show, “Rob and Chyna” on E! The network was also home of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” you know, before they moved to Hulu. Chyna claims that the Kardashians quote, “abused their power” to get the show canceled, costing her millions of dollars in potential earnings, and she also alleges that Rob was physically and emotionally abusive. For their part, the family has filed their own lawsuit alleging that Chyna physically attacked Rob. Opening arguments in the trial where yesterday. Not present in the courtroom was Chyna’s mom, who caused controversy during an Instagram live stream following jury selection on Monday in which she made hostile comments towards the women of the Kardashian family. She said in part that on day one of the trial, Kris Jenner looked like the puppet doll, the movie “Saw” and that the family quote, “looked dead.” Surely there are more updates to come, as this very expensive trial works its way towards a verdict. We will continue to keep you posted. This is very much our beat.


Tre’vell Anderson: This is the reality show that I want to watch actually.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yes, please!


Tre’vell Anderson: Just the trial, the back and forth. Give us a People vs. O.J. moment.


Priyanka Aribindi: I need it! I need it.


Tre’vell Anderson: Like, come on, Ryan Murphy, where are you.


Priyanka Aribindi: Where are you? This is critical.


Tre’vell Anderson: And those are the headlines. We’ll be back after some ads to talk about 4/20 and clearing marijuana convictions off of people’s records.


[ad break]


Tre’vell Anderson: It’s Wednesday WAD squad and we’re going to wrap up today with a chat about marijuana convictions.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yes, today is 4/20 and usually it is a time for weed jokes or if it’s legal, where you are, deals at dispensaries—probably followed up by Girl Scouts at dispensaries, I feel like this is their new marketing tactic. But we also wanted to get serious and talk about the efforts to decriminalize marijuana and the disproportionate rate at which Black Americans are convicted of marijuana possession. According to a 2020 ACLU report, Black people are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for possession than their white counterparts, and the increasing number of states legalizing weed has not curbed that trend at all.


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah, President Biden promised during his campaign that he would decriminalize the use of marijuana at the federal level, but at this point in his presidency, that has not yet happened.


Priyanka Aribindi: Right. So that leaves us with different policies state by state. But as more states make the move to legalize or decriminalize marijuana use, there has been a huge push to expunge convictions for folks in prison because of these kinds of charges. That’s at least 40,000 people, according to the best stat we have from a 2004 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, though many nonprofits say that the actual number is much higher. Plus, there are tens of thousands more people out of prison who still have these convictions on their records.


Tre’vell Anderson: And Priyanka, you got the chance to speak with someone about all of this, right?


Priyanka Aribindi: Yes. So yesterday I spoke to Linn Washington Jr. He is a long-time investigative reporter whose work focuses on the effort to decriminalize marijuana in America. He’s also a journalism professor at Temple University. I started by asking him about the harmful effects that the disproportionate rate of marijuana convictions for Black people has had on the Black community in this country.


Linn Washington Jr.: When you have an arrest record for drugs, including marijuana, you’re denied access to certain things, like access to student loans, rentals, jobs. You can rob a bank, be convicted and sent time in jail but still come out and get access to federal funding to get an education. You have a marijuana conviction, even if it’s just for a small amount of marijuana, you end up being excluded. So it has a really outsized, a deleterious impact, and it’s also understand that many of these police-civilian encounters that lead to arrest for marijuana begin with racial profiling. And there was a real effort to demonize and to increase arrests for marijuana directed against two groups, primarily anti-war people who were against the Vietnam War, and then it was also utilized in the Black community to break up the civil rights movement, the emerging Black Power movement.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. What are some of the promises that President Biden and other politicians have made about expunging these convictions, and where are we at in terms of progress on that?


Linn Washington Jr.: Fortunately, at some state levels, these efforts to legalize adult use of marijuana, they include an expungement of records, particularly for those who have just had a possession conviction. But then you get into the Byzantine nature of some of these expungements. So a person has to know that they’re eligible for this, you know, and go through some special efforts. Some legislation just includes a blanket expungement. But that is a first step in a restoration for the wrongs that the war on weed has caused.


Priyanka Aribindi: Definitely. There have been a number of progressive district attorneys as well who have been elected recently, who have made, you know, big strides in actually expunging these convictions. For example, in San Francisco in 2019, their D.A. expunged over 9,000 marijuana convictions, some of which dated back to 1975. So in pushing for overall decriminalization of this drug, what offices should we be looking for for real change? Are we right to think all of it’s happening at the presidential level, or should we kind of be looking at lower-level things to kind of be making these changes?


Linn Washington Jr.: There’s been a lot of progress at the local and at the state level. I think here in Philadelphia, where I teach and have lived for a number of years, the decriminalization saved millions of dollars in court costs, in police processing, so there has been some progress. But in one sense, if you look at what’s happening progressively at the local and state levels, you’re really seeing people dealing with symptoms and not the cause. The causes is substance remains illegal at the federal level, so that’s where it needs to change, and it needs presidential leadership as well as congressional action.


Priyanka Aribindi: As someone who’s been reporting on this issue for decades, as long as you have, long before obviously, it was, marijuana was legal anywhere in the U.S., what do you think about how far we’ve come in terms of this issue and also how far we still have to go?


Linn Washington Jr.: We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. And that long way to go really is the short step. If you just take marijuana off the federal Schedule 1 designation, and that is considered to be drugs that have no medical application, and put it in Schedule 2, Schedule 3, or just take it off the DEA scheduling altogether, then the problem in many large ways is solved. We have known literally for decades that this substance is not the destroyer with youth, as the propaganda would lead people to believe, but over the years, so we say starting from the same 1980s coming forward, the public sentiment has shifted from being very much opposed to, to being very much in favor of. You know, people really understood the financial costs of this, not only the cost to those who are ensnared by these marijuana laws, but the moneys that we expend on this. I mean, millions of dollars a year just for enforcement, money that could be allocated to a plethora of other things. It’s just absurd and it’s just so insulting, and the injuries from this continue on into the present time.


Priyanka Aribindi: That was my conversation with Linn Washington Jr., investigative reporter and professor at Temple University. We will link to some of his work in our show notes.


Tre’vell Anderson: That’s all for today. If you like the show make sure you subscribe, leave a review, hug a six-foot tall dog, duck, or rodent, and tell your friends to listen.


Priyanka Aribindi: And if you’re into reading, and not just laws decriminalizing weed like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Priyanka Aribindi.


Tre’vell Anderson: I’m Tre’vell Anderson.


[together] And happy 4/20!


Tre’vell Anderson: Oh yes. Puff, puff, pass—if if that’s your thing.


Priyanka Aribindi: If that’s your thing. If It’s not like, what do you do? I don’t know. If it’s not, then don’t, or just pass.


Tre’vell Anderson: Or just pass.


Priyanka Aribindi: Just pass, if it’s not your thing, just pass.


Gideon Resnick: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Jazzi Marine and Raven Yamamoto are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran and me, Gideon Resnick. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.