Decriminalization Versus Legalization of Marijuana

Terms Are Not Interchangeable in the Debate Over Pot

A leaf of a marijuana plant

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There's been a lot of talk about whether medicinal and recreational marijuana use should be legalized or decriminalized across the United States since Colorado allowed retail pot stores to open up shop there in 2014.

But in the discussion about the politics of marijuana and laws restricting its uses, many people mistakenly use the terms decriminalization and legalization interchangeably. In fact, there are important distinctions between decriminalization and legalization.

So what is the different between the two and the arguments in favor of each? And which states have legalized marijuana and which states have decriminalized it?


Decriminalization is a loosening of criminal penalties now imposed for personal marijuana use even though the manufacturing and sale of the substance remain illegal. Essentially, under decriminalization, law enforcement is instructed to look the other way when it comes to the possession of small amounts of marijuana meant for personal use. Under decriminalization, both the production and sale of marijuana remain unregulated by the state. Those caught using the substance face civil fines instead of criminal charges.

reparing Homeopathic Medicine from Marijuana
reparing Homeopathic Medicine from Marijuana. CasarsaGuru/Getty Images


Legalization, on the other hand, is the lifting or abolishment of laws banning the possession and personal use of marijuana. More importantly, legalization allows the government to regulate and tax marijuana use and sales. Proponents also make the case that taxpayers can save millions of dollars by removing from the judicial system the hundreds of thousands of offenders caught with small amounts of marijuana.

Arguments in Favor of Decriminalizing

Proponents of decriminalizing marijuana argue that it doesn't make sense to give the federal government the authority to legalize the use of marijuana on one hand while attempting to regulate it on the other, much the way it sends conflicting messages about alcohol and tobacco use. 

According to Nicholas Thimmesch II, a former spokesman for the pro-marijuana legalization group NORML:

"Where is this legalization going? What confused message is legalization sending to our kids who are told by countless ads not to do any drugs (I do not consider marijuana to be a “drug” in the sense that cocaine, heroin, PCP, meth are) and suffer under “Zero Tolerance” school policies?"

Other opponents of legalization argue that marijuana is a so-called gateway drug that leads users to other, more serious and more addictive substances.

13 States Have Decriminalized Personal Marijuana Use:

  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Illinois 
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • New Hampshire
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Rhode Island

Arguments in Favor of Legalizing

Proponents of complete legalization of marijuana such as the actions taken in Washington and Colorado argue that allowing the manufacturing and sale of the substance removes the industry from the hands of criminals. They also argue that the regulation of marijuana sales makes it safer for consumers and provides a steady stream of new revenue for cash-strapped states. 

The Economic magazine wrote in 2014 that decriminalization makes sense only, as it put it, as a step toward full legalization because under the former only criminals would profit from a product that remains outlawed.

According to The Economist:

"Decriminalization is only half the answer. As long as supplying drugs remains illegal, the business will remain a criminal monopoly. Jamaica’s gangsters will continue to enjoy total control over the ganja market. They will go on corrupting police, murdering their rivals and pushing their products to children. People who buy cocaine in Portugal face no criminal consequences, but their euros still end up paying the wages of the thugs who saw off heads in Latin America. For the producer countries, going easy on drug-users while insisting that the product remain illegal is the worst of all worlds."

9 States and the District of Columbia Have Legalized Personal Marijuana Use:

  • Alaska
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Nevada
  • Oregon
  • Vermont 
  • Washington
  • Washington, D.C.