While the 2016 election left many Americans feeling defeated after Republican candidate Donald Trump secured more electoral votes than Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, some — particularly weed legalization advocates — saw a glimmer of hope that evening, as pro-marijuana referenda passed in eight states, and HBO’s John Oliver explained the pros and cons of the ongoing battle for federal decriminalization of the drug on Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight.
Oliver noted that 44 states now have some sort of medical marijuana law, while eight have laws about recreational use — a feat many celebrated on Nov. 8, though the talk show host said that’s “like celebrating your baseball team winning on the deck of the sinking Titanic.”
Still, citing recent Gallup polls, Oliver indicated 60 percent of Americans favor marijuna legalization, a number that has greatly increased since the 1960s. “[It’s] something we’ve just all gradually decided is okay, like Mark Wahlberg as a serious actor. You know what, sure, I decided I’m fine with that,” Oliver said.
He then went on to trace the drug’s history in the country, highlighting its legality at the start of the 20th century. “But anti-drug hysteria, fueled party by racist stereotypes about who was using it, led to it being gradually outlawed around the country,” said Oliver. “Naturally, it was Richard Nixon — the Mozart of racially motivated lawmaking — who targeted it in his war on drugs.”
The five-time Emmy winner went on, explaining that while state laws have made it easier for certain people to use marijuana recreationally and medically, overarching federal laws have consistently stood in as progress obstacles. “Federal law is clashing with state laws and it’s causing big problems,” Oliver said. “Legal marijuana businesses have struggled to get bank accounts because, at the federal level, they’re still seen as criminal enterprises. So, if banks took their deposits, that could be considered money laundering.”
An interview with a weed business owner additionally confirms “[the government also] bars [tax-paying marijuana businesses] from making most normal business deductions, [so they] could end up with a tax bill far more than any potential profit [they] could ever make.”
Strict federal laws work against state laws when it comes to treating people suffering from nerve disorders and PTSD, including one man featured in an interview clip on Last Week Tonight‘s latest episode, Oliver explained. Brandon Coates was paralyzed but fired for failing a drug test after the state had given him marijuana legally to treat his condition, but, according to Oliver, “he couldn’t turn to the Americans with Disabilities Act for help because that’s a federal law, and it doesn’t protect marijuana use.”
Oliver admitted the final years of Barack Obama’s two-term presidency looked promising for gaining ground on the road toward full legalization. He played a clip from a 2015 interview in which the former president said, “We still have federal laws that classify marijuana as an illegal substance, but we’re not going to spend a lot of resources trying to turn back decisions that have been made at the state level on this issue.” Oliver roughly translated this to: “I’m not going to hassle you over this unless you make me.”
Oliver labeled Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a potential road block to the cause, however, as his comments from a 2016 Caucus on International Narcotics Control suggested. “[Marijuana] is not a non-dangerous drug. This drug is dangerous. You can’t play with it, it’s not funny, it’s not something to laugh about,” Sessions said in a video aired by Last Week Tonight. “Lady Gaga said she’s addicted to it, [so] it’s not harmless.”
“Okay, Jeff, but Lady Gaga also said ‘I believe that men and women deserve to love each other equally’ as well as ‘Touch me in the dark, put your hands all over my body parts,'” said Oliver, “so please, Jeff, if you’re going to live your life by Lady Gaga quotes, please accept the whole canon.”
Last Week Tonight ended with Oliver calling for a renewed focus on the U.S. fixing its approach to marijuana legalization, starting with expunging the records of people who were previously convicted of low-level marijuana offenses and working on laws that impact environmental regulations and international treaties.
“All of this is a lot of work,” Oliver concluded. “Which is why we should start right now.”
Watch Oliver’s full segment on marijuana legalization above, and then hear his new remarks on Trump’s Russia scandal from the same episode.
Last Week Tonight airs Sundays at 11 p.m. ET on HBO.