John Oliver explains why it is past time to update America's federal marijuana laws

John Oliver makes the case for legalizing marijuana
(Image credit: Last Week Tonight)

Marijana, or "catnip for people," has "gained increasing acceptance in recent years," John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. In fact, pro-pot referenda passed in eight states in November, with much excitement from marijuana advocates, even as anti-drug teetotaler Donald Trump won the election. "It's like celebrating your baseball team winning on the deck of the sinking Titanic," Oliver said. Still, 44 states allow some kind of medical marijuana use, and eight allow recreational use, and Oliver found that heartening.

According to Gallup, 60 percent of Americans are cool with legalizing pot, up from 12 percent in 1969. "Marijuana is something we've just all gradually decided is okay, like Mark Wahlberg as a serious actor," Oliver said. "But the legality of marijuana is much more fraught than you may think. In fact, if you have marijuana right now, even if you are acting completely legally according to your state, you may still be in serious jeopardy — and that's not your weed-induced paranoia talking."

Oliver dashed through the history of how pot became illegal in the U.S., culminating in a crusade by Richard Nixon, "the Mozart of racially motivated lawmaking," who openly explained his reasoning in still pretty shocking "conversations he inexplicably recorded." Thanks to Nixon's Controlled Substances Act and subsequent inaction by Congress, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug, along with heroin but above drugs like meth and cocaine. And that has led to federal-state clashes and chaos, mistakes on the state level, and federal barriers to researching marijuana's medical effectiveness.

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"Now, things fractionally improved toward the end of the Obama administration," Oliver said, because "his attitude to pot was basically 'I'm not going to hassle you over this unless you make me' — essentially the same policy as a security guard at a Dave Matthews concert." But the rules Obama put in place aren't permanent, and new Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a strident marijuana opponent. "Our federal laws desperately need to be brought up to date," and there is some oddly establishment support for doing so in Congress, Oliver said — "Yes, there is now a Cannabis Caucus in D.C., and it's co-chaired by these four narcs" — but despite some promising bills, "fixing all of this is a huge undertaking." Watch Oliver's argument below, but be warned: There is some NSFW language, and if your name's Greg, you might want to be sober when you click play. Peter Weber

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.