The difference between marijuana decriminalization & legalization

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Stoner history was made in Colorado
(Image: Cannabis Destiny / CC BY-ND)

As of today, this is how the United States stands on marijuana decriminalization and legalization
Legalized Marijuana Decriminalized Marijuana
New York
North Carolina
Rhode Island

With me, so far? Great. So now let’s talk about what it means. Why is marijuana legal in some states and decriminalized in others? Aren’t they the same?

Well, in a nutshell, NO. As former NORML spokesperson Nicholas Thimmesch II noted, there is a big difference between the two.

The Quick Answer about Marijuana decriminalization and legalization.

To make it really simple, where weed is “decriminalized”, it means you won’t get a criminal record or go to jail on first offenses with small personal consumption quantities. Civil fines can still be imposed, of course. You might be required to go to drug education classes. The fines and disciplinary actions could vary from one state to another. But across all of them, there will be no prison time involved.

Colorado and Washington, where marijuana is legal, have a 1-ounce personal consumption limit on weed. Fines start at $100, but goes up from there depending on how much you’re caught with. Having larger amounts are actually felonies.

Sounds a bit the same, doesn’t it?

Well, here’s where they differ. Decriminalized Marijuana just removes criminal and most monetary penalties. It won’t address actual usage, sales, quality or anything else.

If you haven’t heard, Colorado made millions in revenue from marijuana sales just on the first day that weed became legal.Marijuana Legalization actually entails that the state taxes and in a way, profits, from the entire weed sold. The state is also now required to look at marijuana and determine not just the taxes but also stuff like quality, driving under the influence, age restrictions and others.

What’s Better, Marijuana decriminalization or Marijuana Legalization?

Is it more beneficial to legalize than decriminalize marijuana  then?

Unfortunately, that’s not as easy to answer. Everybody can reasonably agree that the prohibition of cannabis has failed.  But there’s always a debate going on whether to legalize and regulate it, or just decriminalize weed instead.

The most powerful argument about decriminalizing marijuana is it will save the government loads of cash. According to NORML, that argument is backed up by these:

  • The criminal justice system allocates a significant portion of its budget in arresting, prosecuting, sentencing and incarcerating marijuana users, dealers and anyone else involved in the illegal marijuana trade.
  • Criminal justice agencies will have to reduce enforcement and processing tasks if these behaviors are no longer labeled as criminal.
  • The proportion of arrests due to marijuana will decrease.

Decriminalizing weed will therefore result to hundreds of thousands in savings for the government because agency expenses are also going to decrease.

Legalization meanwhile, will result to the following, according to a study:

  • raise tax revenue – arguably, the key argument that lawmakers are pursuing
  • eliminate arrests – reduces cost to government, pretty much like what decriminalization will do
  • undercut the black market – this also includes associated harms from corruption and drug cartel violence
  • allow criminal justice resources to be redirected toward other priorities
  • assure product quality – because it will be properly regulated
  • increase choices for those seeking intoxication – prohibition makes it illegal to consume a weed, which many believe to be less harmful than some legal intoxicants like alcohol
  • limit youth access – proponents argue controlling the youth access to marijuana is possible if weed is legal

There may be benefits to either and both. And certainly, many people see decriminalization as just one step towards legalization.

Is one better than the other? The legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington is just in its infancy. Perhaps we won’t really be seeing the true effects until later on.

In the meantime, knowing the difference between the two may just be enough to save you from spending a night in jail. So read up and learn.

The difference between Marijuana decriminalization and Marijuana legalization

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1 Comment

  1. If it were legalized, then it would, well, be legal. You could buy, sell, and use it legally. If it were decriminalized then it would still be illegal but you would more likely get it confiscated or have to pay a fine. There wouldn’t be any jail time. Punishment would be akin to letting your vehicle registration expire. Thanks.

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