John Oliver Takes on Our Roundabout, Self-Contradicting Marijuana Laws

Apart from a short segment on “Devin Fucking Nunes,” John Oliver focused most of his attention on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight on the immobilizing discrepancies between state laws and federal laws regarding the use of “cat-nip for people” — a.k.a. marijuana.

Oliver notes that many states have to some extent legalized weed in recent years, with the most recent election ushering in wins for pro-marijuana referenda in eight states (a rolling paper-thin silver lining on the otherwise devastating outcome in November). Oliver presents news clips of weed enthusiasts ecstatically declaring victory on election night — noting the slight tonal weirdness, given all of the other things that happened that evening. “It’s like celebrating your baseball team winning…on the deck of the sinking Titanic,” he jokes, before delving into how our country makes it hard for the promises of these pro-marijuana votes to be wholly fulfilled.

Beyond having access to a lovely, and medically helpful, plant, the most crucial argument in favor of decriminalizing weed is to end anti-pot laws’ contributions to mass incarceration. As Oliver mentions, black Americans are “over four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession; interestingly, white people are a million times more likely to be shocked by that statistic.”

As he often does in his longer segments, Oliver uses the middle portion to wade into the history of his topic of discussion — here, American hysteria over “reefer madness.” He gets into Richard Nixon’s initiation of the War on Drugs, deeming him “the Mozart of racially motivated lawmaking.” In a piece in Harper’s last year, Dan Baum quotes Nixon’s domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman, who told him in 1994:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

Oliver shares a nugget of Nixon’s famous White House Tapes, in which the former president discusses his plans for combating marijuana use. Not only is the War on Drugs deeply racist, but Nixon even managed to weave a little incidental anti-Semitism (and a deeply off-putting usage of “puss”) into his casual discussion of it:

You know, its a funny thing, every one of those bastards that are out there legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob, what is the matter with them? I suppose it’s because most of them are psychiatrists, you know, there’s so many, all the greatest psychiatrists are Jewish. By God we are gonna hit the marijuana thing, and I want to hit it right square in the puss.

“Quick historical footnote, you know who he’s talking to there? Billy Bush!” Oliver quips. Watch the full video:

Here’s a scene from the Watergate satire, Dick, in which Nixon unknowingly makes negotiations via weed-laced cookies made by the teenagers (Kristen Dunst and Michelle Williams) the revisionist comedy envisions as Deep Throat: