Six Times Late-Night Comics Tackled Drug Policy

By Keri Blakinger 04/13/16

Late-night comics from Stephen Colbert to John Oliver are at the forefront of drug policy reform.

Obama on The Daily Show
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza/Wkimedia

Drug policy is a serious issue—but comedians have been on the frontlines of the push for policy change. Increasingly, late-night comics have made drug policy and criminal justice the target of their well-informed yet hilarious tirades. Here’s a look at six times comedians offered us important takes on drugs. 


Jon Stewart Targets Chris Christie’s Pot Hypocrisy on The Daily Show

Click to watch on Comedy Central

In a psychedelic and hilarious 4/20 fake newscast last year, Jon Stewart took on pot policy in a segment titled, “Uncle Jonny’s Super Kush Totally Chillaxed Sticky-Icky Informative Marijuana News Report.”

After calling Chris Christie a “total narc,” Jon Stewart went on to point out the politician’s hypocrisy in relation to pot.

First, he cut to a clip of Christie calling marijuana a “gateway drug,” which drew some major boos from the audience. While Christie claimed that he wouldn’t support marijuana legalization if he were president, Stewart took issue with his reasons. Though the New Jersey governor said that the federal government should crack down on marijuana because it’s illegal under federal law and addictive, it seems that he hasn’t always opposed addictive things that feds frown upon.

A smirking Stewart cut to a clip about how Christie legalized internet gambling. “Well, there is a difference, to be fair. If you smoke too much pot, no one comes to break your fuckin’ knees,” the comic quipped.


Ethan Nadelmann on The Colbert Report 

Click to watch on Comedy Central

Before he moved onto The Late Show, Stephen Colbert was best known as the headliner in the Comedy Central news parody show, The Colbert Report. The show featured guests from Cookie Monster to Bryan Cranston—but it also featured important social and political commentary, mostly through a satirical lens. 

One repeat guest who helped tackle those tough topics was Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. One of his best appearances was a 2009 discussion about the drug war. 

"My guest tonight says we would reduce border violence if we legalize drugs," Colbert said, in character as the conservative caricature he was so well known for. "Why don’t we just legalize border violence?"

Probably 95 percent of your audience supports legalizing pot.

Nadelmann explained, despite Colbert’s raucous joking interruptions, the social costs of incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders and the ways in which criminalizing cannabis has created violence in Mexico the way that alcohol prohibition created gang violence in Al Capone’s Chicago. Colbert’s conservative character pushed back at Nadelmann’s progressive assertions, but Nadelmann drew loud cheers when he said, “Probably 95 percent of your audience supports legalizing pot.”


Colbert Talks Clemency

Click to watch on Comedy Central

When Obama announced plans for a clemency initiative in 2014, Colbert jumped right on it. 

“You know this is a bad idea folks, because President Obama got it from the only people less trusted than convicts—Congress,” he told his audience. 

Backtracking to explain a previous rollback of draconian drug war policies, he explained the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. Nodding to the racist implications of that disparity, he said, “There was something about crack offenders that just made them seem more...convictable,” gesturing to his face. 

The comedian pulled up clips of various (mostly conservative) pundits claiming that Obama’s move was merely intended to give Democrats a boost during mid-term elections. “It’s totally unfair, Republicans can’t rally their supporters that way—there are no bankers in jail to release,” he griped.

He went over the qualification criteria, which included no history of violence. Breaking out of his conservative character for a minute, Colbert quipped, “But what about a future of violence? Because if I’d been thrown in jail for possession of marijuana, then got out ten years later and found out pot is legal now? I’m pretty sure I’d shoot someone.”


Bill Maher Calls for Drug Policy Reform

The left-leaning comedian has been an outspoken champion for drug policy reform, something he’s repeatedly brought up on his HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher. One of his more memorable and passionate drug policy monologues was in February of last year, when he used the question of whether presidential would-bes have toked as the take-off point for a call for policy reform.

“The media ritual of asking presidential candidates whether they’ve ever smoked pot can be put to rest, because the answer is always yes and nobody cares,” he said.

Maher joked about his own pot use when he was younger. “And when I say, ‘When I was younger,’ I mean just before the show.” 

Changing to a more serious tone, he pointed out that most politicians brush off previous pot use as something they did when they were young and stupid—but the 700,000 people who get arrested for marijuana every year can’t brush it off so easily. 

“So if we’re going to keep doing that, we should at least be honest with our kids and tell them the truth about drug laws in this country: Kids, if you’re gonna experiment, make absolutely certain that beforehand your parents are white and well-connected,” he said. 

He continued on his pro-reform crusade, ending the segment by urging Obama to issue presidential pardons to all nonviolent drug offenders. 


Carl Hart Visits Larry Wilmore

Since early 2015, The Daily Show veteran Larry Wilmore has had his own Comedy Central show that, like many of the late-night comedy shows, combines monologues with panel discussions. 

In one of his early episodes, Wilmore’s panel—including neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart, comedian Adam Carolla, VH1’s Michelle Buteau and commentator Roland Martin—focused their discussion on marijuana legalization. 

After playfully offering some possibly weed-infused brownies, Wilmore started with a question to Hart, asking if the country was ready for marijuana legalization.

“It’s a ridiculous question for one because when we think about marijuana it’s the second most widely used psychoactive substance in the United States, alcohol being the first,” Hart said.

“It’s not a matter of whether we’re ready, it’s a matter of whether we’re ready to educate people how to do this safely.”

Later, the discussion touched on the racist history of drug criminalization and while both Martin and Hart offered some insightful comments, the quick segment was not one of the better looks at drug policy included on this list. If not for Hart’s presence, it would have been a complete flop. 


John Oliver Takes on Mandatory Minimums 

For what is ostensibly a comedy show, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight has spent an awful lot of time taking serious and well-researched looks at difficult issues—and the criminal justice system has been one of his favorite targets. 

In July, just after President Obama announced a round of sentence commutations for federal prisoners, Oliver took aim at mandatory minimums. He outlined some of the shocking examples, including a first-time offender pot dealer named Weldon Angelos who was sentenced to 55 years behind bars. 

"If my math is right here, this low-level pot dealer received the exact same sentence as would an airplane-hijacking, child-raping terrorist—a person so evil I legitimately don't know if one has ever existed," he quipped.

Although there’s been some reform, Oliver pointed out that most of it has not been retroactive—so people who got arrested now might get far lighter sentences than people arrested for the same crime 20 years ago.  

“Just think about how annoyed you get when people who get seated after you at a restaurant get served and leave before you,” he said. “Only in this case, the food is prison food, the restaurant is prison, and dinner takes 55 fucking years.”

He ended the segment by calling for laws that would allow prisoners sentenced in the past to apply for reduced sentences. “Almost everyone has agreed that mandatory minimum laws were a mistake,” he said, “and we cannot have a system where people are continuing to pay for that mistake and where perhaps their best chance of getting out of a prison that they should no longer be in is somehow finding a turkey costume and hanging around the fucking White House at Thanksgiving.”

Although this—like many of Oliver’s seconds—was side-splittingly funny, it’s also one of the better researched and more in-depth analyses available on late-night comedy. While other comedians offer quicker takes on the subject, Oliver consistently offers in-depth research—and he doesn’t just stick to the low-hanging fruit of marijuana legalization. It’s easy to get late-night comedy audiences excited about pot, but the British comic manages to get his viewers riled up about things like bail reform and civil asset forfeiture.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.