In the cannabis world, we hear a lot about legalization. Federal legalization, state legalization — these seem to be some of the few terms that are constantly being thrown around. Yet, as everyone is so focused on getting the plant legalized, the act of decriminalization often goes unnoticed. In fact, the majority of the states in the US have decriminalized marijuana, and even more have plans of doing so.
So, what does this mean? What is the difference between cannabis decriminalization and legalization, and why are so many states okay with making this decision? To help you get caught up to speed, we’re covering everything you need to know about decriminalization and why states have done this since the mid-70s. Let’s get started.
What is Cannabis Decriminalization?
First thing’s first: what is cannabis decriminalization?
When a state chooses to decriminalize cannabis, they’re essentially saying that specific amounts of cannabis won’t get you jailed. For example, a state can decriminalize low doses of marijuana, making it so that if you get caught with a few grams of weed, you’ll just get a small fine — no jail time.
Cannabis decriminalization allows people to make and learn from their mistakes without paying the life-changing lesson of going to jail. Having a cannabis-related crime on your record — no matter how minor — can be detrimental to your future. Decriminalization ensures that these negligible offenses aren’t going to have significant consequences, only positive results.
Decriminalizing the cannabis plant in certain amounts provides varying benefits for states and their residents. We will talk more about the details later, but it’s become more common for states to decriminalize cannabis than not. However, it’s crucial not to get this term mixed up with cannabis legalization (even though it so often does).
What’s the Difference Between Decriminalization and Legalization?
Talking about marijuana decriminalization always unearths the question: what’s the difference between decriminalization and legalization? We’re glad you asked.
A lot of people often get these two terms confused. As we established, cannabis decriminalization makes it so that you won’t be criminalized for low amounts of marijuana possession, even in illegal states. However, it doesn’t make cannabis legal just because you won’t go to jail for a few grams. You still have to pay your fines and go through the legal process.
Cannabis legalization, on the other hand, allows for much more marijuana freedom. In states with legalized cannabis, as long as you follow the marijuana regulations they put in place, you cannot and will not get in trouble with the law if you consume or possess the substance. Of course, you have to abide by possession, cultivation, and transportation laws; however, actually possessing cannabis or consuming it in your own home is 100% legal. (Again, as long as you’re of legal age. We have to stress this.)
A lot of people think of decriminalization as the first step towards cannabis legalization. While it doesn’t completely legalize the plant in the state, it shows residents that they don’t have the demonized perspective they maybe once had. For many, cannabis is far more than just a plant, and strict criminalization laws only punish those looking for alternative relief. Though it isn’t quite as highly regarded as legalization, cannabis decriminalization hosts its own set of valuable results.
Why Are States Decriminalizing Cannabis?
Right now, 27 states — as well as Washington DC — have decriminalized some amount of cannabis. Oregon was the first state to make this decision all the way back in 1973. They made the landmark choice of decriminalizing weed under an ounce, leaving residents to pay a measly fine of $100 if they broke the law. Since then, 26 other states have followed suit, creating their own cannabis decriminalization regulations.
But, why? Why have states been doing this for decades? And, an even better question: why haven’t all states hopped on this bandwagon yet?
The individual reasoning behind states’ decision to decriminalize cannabis is all unique. However, most places recognize the potential ethical and financial benefits behind the choice. Since the early 1900s, Black and Brown Americans have been unfairly punished for cannabis usage, with criminalization numbers being disproportionately skewed. This racial bias hasn’t slowed, either. Thus, states have found that decriminalizing cannabis (as the bare minimum, we must add) helps reduce arrest numbers and keeps Americans out of jail for cannabis-related crimes. Compared to other jailable offenses, minor cannabis-related crimes simply take up space — and more states are realizing this every day.
Of course, the reduced number of jail sentences also saves the state a good amount of cash. This is likely why we see some states with such opposing cannabis viewpoints still decriminalize small amounts — it’s great for their economy. While we can hope that this isn’t the driving factor for most states, it does appear to be a considerable benefit of decriminalization.
A Promising Cannabis Future?
Recently, the United States saw the proposal of the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act, which aimed to decriminalize cannabis at a federal level. It also had the goal of expunging previous and current “offenders” of their cannabis-related crimes. While the MORE Act made noise, it still hasn’t quite made the moves the cannabis industry was hoping for.
Now, we’re looking at a new, more promising cannabis act. This year, Senator Chuck Schumer proposed the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act — a decision that would finally remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act. This would essentially lead to federal decriminalization, though states will have their say on how the plant is regulated in their areas.
All of these proposals are exciting for the cannabis world, but it’s nothing to get our hopes up for quite yet. Even though more than half of the states in the US have decriminalized cannabis, so many more are still unsure about legalization or even federal decriminalization. Currently, marijuana does have a promising future in the United States, but that future may be a bit far off in the distance.
While we can hope and pray that the big-name politicians finally hop on board with better, more equal cannabis legislation, we’ll stay paying attention to states’ decisions on decriminalization and, of course, legalization.