Last Week Tonight Hits On Marijuana Laws


John Oliver discussed the intricacies of marijuana legislation throughout the United States

In this week’s episode of Last Week Tonight, intrepid host John Oliver explored the ins and outs of marijuana legislation in the United States. To no one’s surprise, the whole situation has become a deviously complicated mess.

First, a little bit of background. On Election Night, pro-pot laws were passed in eight states. Of course, you may have missed that, given the results of another national election. At any rate, this now means that 44 states have some sort of provision for medical marijuana use. A further eight states have laws that allow for recreational (i.e., non-medical) use as well.

So, what’s the problem? Everyone’s celebrating, right? Sure, until you consider the role of federal regulations tied up in all of this.

Oliver reminded everyone that federal laws are still decidedly anti-pot. In fact, marijuana is currently classified as a DEA Schedule I drug, along with heroin. Less stringently regulated Schedule II drugs include cocaine, morphine, and methamphetamines.

Illustration from American Medicinal Plants, by Charles Frederick Millspaugh (Image via Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

The history of marijuana regulation is tied to racism

Why does the federal government have such a big problem with marijuana? After all, as many people will readily tell you, pot is nowhere near the same level of abuse and danger as heroin. Do a little digging (or just listen to Oliver), and you’ll learn that pot was even entirely legal at the beginning of the 20th century. What gives?

Well, for one, racism. Oliver pointed out that early anti-marijuana regulations were linked to misperceptions about black people and their supposed drug use. Certainly, the history of the “War on Drugs” has shown that more stringent drug sentencing and zero-tolerance or three-strikes policies disproportionately affect communities of color.

President Richard Nixon, who signed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, apparently had no qualms about these issues. In a White House recording made by Nixon and played by Oliver, the former President spouted anti-Semitic sentiments while discussing drug regulations.

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No one seems to agree on the legality of marijuana

Even today, ostensibly legal practices encounter hard truths. Marijuana dispensaries, medical or otherwise, often face a series of Catch-22s when running their businesses. While their operations may be legal on a state level, they certainly aren’t on a federal one. This means that banks are reluctant to do business with dispensaries.

This, in turn, means that the owners of dispensaries are often forced to pay their taxes and employees entirely in cash. Yes, they are still obliged to pay federal taxes, though they can’t claim many common tax deductions.

Individuals can feel the effects, too. Oliver related instances of people being fired with no recourse for legal medical use. Children were also taken away because pot in their home might increase the risk of burglaries. Oliver pointed out that the same could be said for entertainment centers, but no one is taking your kids away just because you have a new TV.

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Medical marijuana needs more accessible research

Furthermore, pot has already proven to be a useful treatment for veterans with PTSD. However, thanks to federal restrictions on marijuana research, much of the current evidence is anecdotal.

But, it’s heinously difficult for researchers to conduct studies on marijuana use. It can take years for federal approval to come through. Meanwhile, the government has a single source for “legal” pot, from the University of Mississippi’s Marijuana Project.

All of this was generally a moot point under the Obama administration. Essentially, Obama said that federal officials weren’t prioritizing prosecution for marijuana laws, within a reasonable degree. However, the newest Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is another story entirely. During a 2014 statement quoted on the show, he said that “[Marijuana] is dangerous. It’s not funny…. Good people don’t smoke marijuana”.

Oliver argued that the federal government desperately need to update its stance on marijuana. Some instances are encouraging. The recent Congressional Cannabis Caucus formed just this February, with the goal of aligning state and federal pot laws.

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Furthermore, a bill proposed on March 30 seeks to remove marijuana as a Schedule I drug. It also seeks to rename the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Marijuana, Firearms and Explosives.

Still, said Oliver, more work is necessary. These haphazard laws and regulations affect many different things, from the legal system to the environment. Substantial change must happen sooner rather than later.