John Oliver Lays Out Alarming Contradictions Between State, Federal Marijuana Laws

Ryan Bort
John Oliver Lays Out Alarming Contradictions Between State, Federal Marijuana Laws

You probably didn't realize it at the time, but on the same night Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, eight of those states passed marijuana legalization measures. With Arkansas, California, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada and North Dakota joining the 36 other states that have said yes to grass, there are now only six states in which marijuana is not currently legal in some capacity.

Yes, it seems to be only a matter of time before the entire United States goes green. According to Gallup, 60 percent of Americans were in favor of marijuana legalization in 2016, compared to 12 percent in 1969. “Marijuana is something we’ve all just gradually decided is OK, like Mark Wahlberg as a serious actor,” joked John Oliver on Last Week Tonight.

But as Oliver points out, it's not going to be easy getting over that final hump. The federal government has been obstinate in its position on marijuana, and that isn't likely to change under the Trump administration.

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The problems lie in the contradictions between the federal government's view of marijuana and that of the states. In Colorado, for instance, it is fully legalized, but the United States of America, of which it's a part, isn't as sympathetic to those who dabble in pot smoking. In fact, the Controlled Substances Act, which Richard Nixon signed in 1970 and is still in effect today, classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, alongside heroin. Schedule II drugs, which are considered less dangerous, include cocaine and meth. Some are advocating that marijuana be classified as a Schedule III drug, or even put in a less dangerous category.

Business impact

The legalization of marijuana necessitates that businesses be launched to produce and distribute it. Starting a business involves a lot of paperwork, though, which has been problematic. As Oliver points out, it has been difficult for many marijuana-focused businesses to even open bank accounts, because accounting to the federal government they are criminal enterprises. "If banks took their deposits, that could be considered money laundering," says Oliver. As a result, many are forced to deal strictly in cash, paying employees with envelopes filled with bills.

The lack of bank accounts doesn't mean marijuana businesses don't have to pay taxes, though. The tax code stipulates that taxes must be paid on bribes, stolen goods and any other capital that was obtained through criminal means.

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So, if these businesses pay taxes, they must be able to write off business expenditures, right? Nope. Deductions not allowed. "You could end up with a tax bill far more than any potential profit you could ever make," says Jeremy Carr, the CEO of BlazeNow, a California-based cannabis app.

Medical impact

Examples highlighted by Oliver:

* An NBC segment about a man named Brandon Coates, who has been paralyzed since he was a teenager. Coates had a prescription for medical marijuana, but the Dish Network fired him for failing a drug test. This is hard to believe, but it's also the type of thing that can happen when a state law directly contradicts a federal law.

* In Michigan, two parents had their baby taken away from them because the father was prescribed marijuana to help with his epilepsy. The state said their home was too dangerous for a six-month-old infant, as the plants they were permitted to grow increased the risk of armed robbery. Again, hard to believe.

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* In Kentucky, a veteran suffering from PTSD had to obtain his marijuana through "criminal" means because of the state's impractically strict guidelines for procuring medical marijuana. Though it is legal, marijuana requires a "written order," or a prescription. Unfortunately, under federal law, it is illegal for a doctor to write a marijuana prescription. The VA can't help, either, because it's a federal hospital.

Research impact

It's also difficult to study the effects of what the federal government considers a criminal substance. Researches need approval from three different federal agencies to study marijuana—the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the DEA—which can take years to secure. As Oliver points out, one scientist was forced to wait six years to study marijuana's effects on PTSD.

So what about remedying this situation? How can the federal government alter its marijuana policy so it's more amenable to the states? Is there hope for real reform? As Oliver points out, the Obama administration tried to stay out of states' way, and did make it easier for businesses to open bank accounts. The Trump administration, however, isn't likely to take a hands-off approach. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has not only called marijuana "dangerous" on multiple occasions, he has said that he wants to “send a message with clarity that good people don’t smoke marijuana.”

This isn't a good sign for Brandon Coates, or the parents from Michigan who had their six-month-old taken away, or the veterans in Kentucky struggling with PTSD. “Our federal laws desperately need to be brought up to date," says Oliver. Hopefully, someone is listening.


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