Bill Maher Lights-Up On Network Television

Long-time marijuana legalization proponent, and NORML Advisory Board member, comedian Bill Maher, achieved some sort of milestone recently when he lit-up a joint during a humorous monologue on his HBO television show Real Time With Bill Maher.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There have likely been thousands of entertainers and celebrities over the years who have gotten stoned prior to appearing on a television program, and who have been comfortable performing in front of a national audience while stoned.

But this was different. Here was a celebrity talk-show host on a major network, who, in the middle of his monologue on the need to legalize marijuana nationwide, pulled a joint out of his jacket pocket, lit it and began toking. It was, I presume, his way of demonstrating that smoking marijuana is no big deal, and does not cause the smoker to lose control or behave in an inappropriate manner. Maher completed his monologue, which was extraordinarily funny, and continued with his program, without the slightest indication he was impaired by his smoking.

Don’t Take Legalization for Granted

Also, Maher clearly had a serious political purpose in mind when he decided to ignore the marijuana laws and light-up a joint on his show. He was using his monologue to remind his viewers that marijuana legalization does not occur without a lot of work from proponents in each individual state, and that none of us should presume the current political momentum will continue indefinitely. “Stop treating it like you could never lose it,” Maher warned.

That’s a message that resonates with those of us who lived through the 1970s, when, based on the report of the Marijuana Commission, we first decriminalized minor marijuana offenses in eleven states, and felt we were on the verge of winning nationwide. Instead, near the end of the decade the mood of the country turned far more conservative towards marijuana policy, with the rise of the parents’ movement and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, and we saw our progress come to an abrupt halt. We failed to win another statewide marijuana reform measure for 18 years (until California legalized medical use in 1996).

There are important differences between those years and the current time, including an enormous increase in public support for legalization. In the 1970s, when we were winning decriminalization proposals at the state level, the Gallup Poll showed we enjoyed only about 28% support for legalization. Today that support level is at 58%, a reality our opponents will have to overcome if they expect to stop the legalization movement.

But Maher’s point is valid; we should not treat legalization as if it is inevitable. We are currently winning, and each election cycle we are adding more states and gaining momentum nationally. But our opponents have not given up the fight, and we must not rest on our laurels.

Lighting-Up As A Political Act

I know that lighting-up in public is something that remains off-limits for most legalization activists, considered a tactic that might be “over the line” and could frighten non-smokers and cause a political backlash. I too generally favor tactics that are less confrontational. With the wind of public support now behind our backs, we can usually make our case more effectively without the need for civil disobedience.

But for every rule there is an exception, and there are some situations in which lighting-up in public is justified, and makes sense. And Maher’s decision to light-up on his television program, as part of his monologue, was one of those times.

Maher was not getting stoned just to relax, or to get high; he was doing it as part of his long-term, continuing support for legalizing marijuana; it was a very public, and effective way to protest marijuana prohibition. And it demonstrated that Maher would not be intimidated by the fear of being arrested for his use of marijuana.

Others Have Used This Tactic Effectively

And it is not just celebrities who sometimes light-up a joint publicly to protest prohibition. One obvious example is Philly NORML co-chair and journalist Chris Goldstein, who in 2013 organized a series of marijuana prohibition protests at the Liberty Bell, called “Smoke Down Prohibition.” The connection between personal liberty and smoking marijuana was obvious.

These events were announced in advance, specifically for the purpose of protesting prohibition, and Goldstein (and others) ignored the presence of the police who were standing by, observing the event, and lit-up a joint and passed it around to others who chose to be part of the protest.

On the first event, there were no arrests. But at the second event both Goldstein and nine of his colleague were issued federal citations (the Liberty Bell is on federal property), but no one was taken into custody. But on the third time, two months later, Goldstein was arrested, and this time he was taken to trial, convicted, fined $3,000, banned from getting within 100 feet of the Liberty Bell, and placed on probation for two years, with strict drug testing and travel restrictions.

He understood the risks of engaging in civil disobedience, and he accepted the legal consequences for his actions, hoping the courage he displayed might cause other smokers to assume a more assertive role, and might cause some elected officials to treat the legalization issue more seriously. I greatly admire Goldstein for his willingness to put his personal freedom on the line for principle.

And importantly, Goldstein has continued his pro-legalization work and the results have been dramatic. With the help of a supportive city councilman, Goldstein led the efforts to decriminalize minor marijuana offenses in the city in 2014, substituting a $25 fine instead of an arrest and jail. And marijuana arrests have plummeted in Philadelphia.

The Seattle Hempfest and the Boston Freedom Rally

Public smoking has always been prominent at events such as the Seattle Hempfest and the Boston Freedom Rally, which are modern versions of what we used to call “smoke-ins.” The whole purpose of being there is to flout marijuana prohibition and to light-up in public en masse.

When one person does it, you may get arrested. But when thousands of people join in the protest, at most the police can only arrest a few token (or should that be toking) protesters. And generally, over time, the authorities essentially abandon their futile attempts to enforce the law, and largely look the other way. That has been the case with both the Seattle and the Boston events.

So while the marijuana legalization issue has made such political progress over the last several years that I believe these “in your face” tactics are, in most situations, not the most effective, so long as marijuana prohibition remains in place in even one state, and under federal law, there will be situations where lighting-up in public makes a positive political statement. And Bill Maher used one of those occasions to fire one up on his network television program last week.

Nice work, Bill. You made us all proud!


This column first appeared on

31 thoughts

  1. I am a long time fan of Bill Maher! In fact, if he was running for president, he would (seriously) get my vote over any of the other current candidates with the possible exception of Mr. Bernie Sanders.

    Sending a SALUTE out to Bill Maher!!! Thank you for your continued voice of sanity in a rather crazy world.

  2. Maher is one of MJ legalization’s greatest advocates, continually pointing out our country’s hypocritical stance on prohibition. He openly says things that too many politicians cannot or believe they cannot say.

  3. I think the reason why we’re winning* is the development of vaporization technology, and hammering on the old $moking stump is counter-productive.

    *especially since 2007, year when Gieringer et al. published the research on a $600 Volcano, and now you can learn how to Vape with a $1.29 flexdrawtube one-hitter.

  4. Maher for President! Bernie if you’re by some odd chance reading this – Maher for your VP.

    For those not in a green state it’s so ridiculous you can coss an invisible (state) line, and suddenly common sense is the LAW!

    Mr. President, if by some odder chance you are perusing these comments… C’MON !!! You have the chance to solidify your legacy by fixing the atrocious scheduling of a US Patented medicinal herb.

    A plant that you, yourself, have used just as millions of other people have. People always will use Cannabis regardless of it’s legal status. Let’s amend this wrong, and stand on the right side of history.

  5. Well played, Bill, but let’s not forget that it was Zach Galifianakis who first lit up a joint on live television on Bill’s show a year or so ago.

    1. I remember that moment when Zach Galifianakis sparked that joint on TV. I’m sure he wasn’t the first to do something like this, but it really was a powerful moment. You could tell that he was incredibly nervous, practically shaking as he sparked the lighter, but he made a serious point with the pundits on that panel.

      1. Galifianafikis said the day after he “lit up a joint” that it was a clove cig. So, big difference here. Bill is kind of a jerk and I doubt even he wants to be president (and it wouldn’t be a good idea) but I appreciate his cannabis advocacy.

  6. We’re at a point in time where the paradox between the two perceptions of marijuana (smoking a joint as a radical, political and criminal act, versus smoking a joint as an ordinary, everyday, non-controversial act) has never been more extreme! And I think that may be in part what Bill Maher was pointing out when he lit up: what exactly occurred there? A big deal, or no big deal? Well, either or both, depending on your perception. Bill calls “bullshit” on marijuana prohibition, and he does is very well (and, gets high at the same time! Classy.)

  7. Since the last 3 Presidents have consumed drugs like cocaine and MJ..You would think that one of them would give a Pres. pardon to all non- violent convicted people and free them from the hells that this money game has destroyed our lives..its all about the$$$$..I lost and $80,000.00 a year job for growing 3 plants under the med.mj program in mi.the criminal cops tried to take everything I worked for and saved for 30 years. Now I’m a criminal that cant get a job instead of an adult free man paying taxes…

  8. Bill Maher is a hero to our nation for demonstrating that someone can smoke a joint without going psycho and start trying to kill/rape everybody. I mean, isn’t that exactly what the Feds have been saying since the 1930s? Okay, they have been forced to change their argument a few times since then because they keep getting proved wrong. Still, they (mostly Republicans) cling fiercely to their idiocy that it is dangerous and that it is better for us to be in prison than to be allowed to grow it and smoke it; or even vaporize it.

    In fact, they themselves are dangerous. I’m talking about idiots like Chris Christie and Marco Rubio; both very anti-marijuana. I’ve never heard either one of them even mention the dangers of alcohol and tobacco in spite of them both being much more dangerous.

    If only they had the human decency to consider the amount of violence that has occurred at marijuana related events it is obvious that it’s effects are nothing close to what they claim. But no, either they’re completely ignorant or paid off by the prison lobby, big pharma, law enforcement, and probably various cartels…

    It is a real embarrassment to even be an American considering that our Govts stupidity on this subject has gone on for almost 100 years! When I travel to other countries, I don’t even want to tell anyone where I come from because they don’t have a good opinion of Americans. They think we are all as stupid as our Govt seems to be.

  9. Isn’t there a way to use the 21st amendment to end our current Prohibition?

    [Editor’s note: Unfortunately, the amendment was specific to alcohol. Cannabis’ illegality is rooted in a 1937 federal law that was scrapped and replaced in 1970 with the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

    Congress has the ability to amend the CSA, including removing cannabis from it (exempting it like alcohol and tobacco products).]

    1. Too bad our Republic led congress is completely useless! If it was up to me, I’d get rid of them all and jus start over…

  10. I think Bill Maher wants the day to come, when we won’t care if he lights up a joint. Seeing a talk show host smoking a joint will be on the same level as drinking and eating or maybe just sitting there smoking and enjoying hosting his show and being high doing it. It probably stirs up his creative juices and relaxes him to a point where he feels like he is in our living room’s smoking a joint with us.and enjoying the conversation.

  11. I was moved that Bill chose to make the focus of his protest in response to the tragic state-sponsored terror Kansas imposed on veteran Raymond Schwab, who is forced to give up his hard-fought right to consume cannabis that treats the PTSD he obtained from serving our country in the Gulf War in order to get his youngest children back from child custody in the state of Kansas;

    Its important to clarify that the children in question, the youngest now 5, were taken because their own grandmother reported to Kansas law enforcement that the children were abandoned while mr. Schwab secured his new job in Colorado, a decision the grandmother now reportedly regrets.

    But as too many child custody cases go when marijuana gets involved after “investigation” even after charges of neglect or even charges from a weak-spirited grandma are dropped, children are held by the state at ransom until parents pass a few piss tests and subdue themselves to divulging perhaps the only safe and effective medicine the VA won’t give them access to… Marijuana.

    This is where I don’t hold back the term of “State sponsored terror” …when a state like Kansas forces children to testify against their own parents just so local CPS can get Federal kickbacks from the DEA for closing a drug-related case. This is treasonous, deplorable behavior from an unconstitutional, morally bankrupt marijuana policy that requires immediate reform. The wrong people are being punished.

    I use strong language like “state sponsored terror” as I find it appropriate here, when the same Department of Health and Human Services that separates families for self medicating with marijuana hold the US patent #6630507 for “cannabinoids as neuroprotectants.” We live under villainous hypocritical tyranny, and I applaud Maher for drawing attention to this fact.

  12. The earlier part of the show where the Nicaraguan Republican journalist spars over calling George W Bush a “war criminal” is worth noting and may explain why Bill chose to whip out a joint on the show…
    … Well to recover from that conversation AND of course to make Killer Mike’s momma happy…

    “My momma made that weed… Thats good $#!+…”


    Bill was more on the defense of “I know you’re a comedian” than agreeing with the comment that George W is a war criminal, but in light of me calling child custody and extortion of children for non-violent self medication of marijuana a form of state sponsored terror, the debate begs the question of what to do with all the Sherrif’s Associations, the DEA and the architects of the CSAct once we have crossed the climactic threshold in our society of how we define a criminal? (Much less we dare correctly define a war criminal, or a drug war criminal)…

    With the recent death of conservative Justice Scalia in the Supreme Court and the rise of a progressive movement with Bernie Sanders, Ill entertain the thought that we have a few drug-war nazis sweating in their senate seats, but what do we really DO with perpetrators of the Drug War if one day a Federal judge has the guts to say, according to the Bill of Rights, that Congress really DOES have to be right? Is there a prison big enough? Can we at least give the dirty cops and Congressman some community service in the communities they systematically destroyed?
    We know the revenue from legally regulated marijuana will balance the once parasitic budgets that relied on marijuana prohibition, but aren’t there some reparations for the many nations and communities of drug war victims, and how much are we due to settle in court?

  13. That drawing doesnt look like Bill. He doesnt have glasses or longish flowing hair. Just sayin’.

    But of course i agreed with the point he made. But one point about states rights meaning you can take them away. Well, yes and no. I think the south would have been fine keeping their slave but not having them in the north. Same way im ok with the 20 or so blue states having MJ legel and not the others. It should be re-catagorized on the federal level though. Thats the Golden Goose IMO.

    1. Did you know that illiteracy is a mechanical component of slavery? Another component is political complacency that slavery in another place in our nation somehow “doesn’t affect my freedom where I am. ”
      And when I read a comment that truly doesn’t seem to appreciate that the picture above is of Keith Stroup, and clearly not Bill Maher, (really, at first I thought you were just drunk, and then I realized holy $#!+, this guy isn’t kidding…)

      So subsequently I begin to appreciate all the hard work that goes into the editing on this blog in order to weed out the thoughtless comments… Of such immense depths I dare to imagine… and as such allows us to elevate our conversation concerning marijuana legalization. Thank you editors.

      Lord knows Ive probably written some impulsive unedited regurgitation on this blog, but you, my friend, Manute, win the vomit award. And its “re-schedule” not… Ah whatever…

      1. I had no idea who the picture was, but now I wonder why would they put the founder of Norml and not Bill Maher. And also its wrong that he lit up during the monologue and continuEd the rest of the show. He lit up at the last 2 minutes. I haven’t smoked in a few years because it’s illegal, I hate the laws so much. I have severe anxiety and I self medicate with alcohol, which I would trade for Marijuana any day.

      2. What the Fuck are you talking about? Does anyone else realize it’s a pic that Keith puts in front every one of his blogs? And what the fuck does “Techlicious” mean? You know what? Never mind, I don’t care. Go get drunk, and please don’t vote.

  14. The facts are all on the side of cannabis. The power to arrest and prosecute is what the drug war is all about.

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