As the United States reaches a point where over 75% of Americans have access to medical cannabis and over 20% have access to recreational cannabis, understanding the difference between decriminalization and legalization is important to contextualize the state of cannabis legislation in our states, the country as a whole, and neighboring countries that are adopting similar policies.
So what do is meant when we use or see the words, “decriminalization” or “legalization?” Here are the basic differences between the two terms and what each encompasses.
Let’s start with legalization.
Legalization of cannabis has two consequences: 1) It lifts the ban on all sections of the cannabis industry. These include the use, production, and distribution of the substance. 2) It allows governments to regulate and monitor these activities (both on the supply side and demand side).
The state basically replaces the black market, and has the power to regulate who is allowed to grow and distribute cannabis as well as who is allowed to purchase and use the substance. Legalization allows for a tax structure, and means that so long as businesses and consumers comply with laws and regulations set forth by the authorities, they will not face criminal penalties.
Decriminalization, on the other hand, is a different matter.
Under decriminalization of cannabis, activity on the supply and demand sides are still considered illegal, but penalties are not as severe. Decriminalization policy allows for law enforcement to be a bit more flexible in the way they prosecute and penalize individuals–for instance, opting for fines or civil charges instead of jail time and a criminal record.
In countries where cannabis is decriminalized, nations allow citizens to possess and use a small amount of cannabis privately, but anything at a larger scale is considered unlawful.
Decriminalization also prevents the government from taxing, monitoring, or regulating the industry’s businesses and consumers, which has drawn some criticism for allowing too much freedom on the production side (a potential public health issue).