Decriminalization vs. Legalization: What’s the Difference for Marijuana?


Kelly Weimert

August 14th, 2017

Policy


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Legal marijuana consumption in this country is tricky business to be sure. Due to the federal government’s failure to legalize the drug despite its myriad economic, physical, and mental benefits, it’s up to the states to decide what they want to do about it. And what states have chosen to do up to this point is highly variable across the board, which can make it tough for consumers to know for sure whether they’re engaging in legal activity.

Only a small handful of states have decided to fully legalize it for recreational and medicinal use, with the rest offering a mixed bag of legality and decriminalization for us to navigate, leading to a fair amount of confusion about what “legalization” and “decriminalization” actually mean. It’s critically important for cannabis patients, enthusiasts, and entrepreneurs to understand the difference between these two words to feel confident that their marijuana activities will keep them out of trouble (and jail) as well as glean insight into what the future of cannabis legalization is likely to hold.

What is legalization?

If recreational and/or medicinal cannabis is deemed legal in a state, then it means a few things. For one, its use is no longer considered criminal conduct provided the user meets the requirements the law outlines, such as age restrictions and quantity limitations. But perhaps even more importantly, legalization gives the government the ability to lawfully regulate cannabis consumption.

That means government authorities are able to control who is allowed to grow cannabis, where and how it’s distributed, how much one is permitted to possess, and who can consume it for what reasons. Legalization also means the government can tax it and use that money for additional resources.

Basically, cannabis legalization is just like tobacco and alcohol—provided the person partaking is of legal age and doing so in a place  where it’s not explicitly outlawed, then they’re doing nothing wrong under the eyes of the law.

What is decriminalization?

If marijuana is decriminalized but not legalized in a state then that means consuming it in any way is still considered an illegal activity but the penalties and enforcement of the law are typically fairly light and loose.

For instance, law enforcement in a decriminalized state might be instructed to turn a blind eye to private citizens who are enjoying cannabis for personal use or simply fine the offender rather than make an arrest that could lead to jail time. However, if a person or group is suspected of producing the drug en masse, transporting it, or selling it, they’re likely to face serious charges.

And unlike legalization, if marijuana is decriminalized, governments do not have the authority to regulate its use, meaning they can’t tax it, monitor producers or consumers, or standardize its quality. Opponents of decriminalization-only argue that the government’s inability to regulate cannabis opens the door for drug cartels to distribute the drug illegally and continue to monopolize the market.

The pros and cons of legalization

As mentioned, one of the biggest benefits of legalization to states is that it significantly diminishes the opportunity for criminals to capitalize on the market and allows sales from the drug to be put toward a state’s growth and economy. For example, after cannabis became recreationally and medicinally legal in Colorado, the state made more than 10 million dollars in taxes from retail sales in just the first four months of it being legalized.

States that opt to legalize can also provide thousands of new jobs to the public as more and more retail shops, delivery services, grow farms, and product manufacturers pop up.

Of course, there are still some opponents to legalization, such as Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who argues that legal status will make it too accessible to the general public and lead to increased substance abuse problems, particularly with respect to the opioid epidemic. However, recent studies suggest that not only does marijuana use not cause opioid addiction; it can actually be used to treat it.

The pros and cons of decriminalization

The primary benefit of decriminalization of marijuana is that while it’s true decriminalization means people can still get in trouble for using cannabis, that trouble does not typically involve an arrest, a criminal record, or jail time. For that reason, many view decriminalization as a promising first step toward stopping the mass incarceration of nonviolent marijuana users—a phenomenon that’s largely a result of the government’s “War on Drugs” campaign, now widely considered a failure with respect to reducing crime and consumption.

However, despite being a promising first step to legalization, decriminalization’s major drawback is that it keeps the government from having control over the drug’s sale, production, and distribution and puts that control into the hands of criminals and drug cartels.

Bottom line

In a nutshell, if marijuana is legal across the board in your state, then you’re safe to consume it without fear of prosecution as long as you’re of legal age and under the legal possession limit. If it’s decriminalized in your state but not legal, then private citizens consuming for personal use won’t be criminally prosecuted but still run the risk of facing fines and civil charges.

Kelly Weimert

About Kelly Weimert

Kelly is a full-time freelance writer based in Austin, TX. A happy hybrid of geek and hippie, when she's not nestled into her couch crankin' out crafty prose with her miscreant Chihuahua, you can find her frolicking outside to keep her sanity in check.


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