Decriminalization Versus Legalization of Marijuana

Terms Are Not Interchangeable in the Debate Over Pot

A leaf of a marijuana plant

David McNew/Getty Images

Many people mistakenly use the terms decriminalization and legalization interchangeably when discussing marijuana laws. There are important distinctions between the two.

When Colorado allowed retail pot stores to open in 2014 it sparked discussion across the country about whether medicinal or recreational marijuana use should be decriminalized or legalized. Some states have decriminalized it, while others have legalized it.

Decriminalization

Decriminalization is a loosening of criminal penalties 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.

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

Legalization

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.

Where It Is Decriminalized

According to NORML, these states have fully decriminalized personal marijuana use:

  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii (takes effect Jan. 11, 2020)
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Mississippi
  • Nebraska
  • New Hampshire
  • New Mexico
  • Rhode Island

These states have partially decriminalized certain marijuana offenses:

  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio

Arguments in Favor of Legalizing

Proponents of complete legalization of marijuana such as the actions taken in the early states of 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 Economist magazine wrote in 2014 that decriminalization makes sense only 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."

Where It Is Legalized

Eleven states and the District of Columbia have legalized the personal possession of small amounts of marijuana, and, in some cases, the sale of pot in licensed dispensaries.

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