Can you tell the difference? Some people think that they can. We even use the words interchangeably sometimes. To many cannabis lovers, the two words mean the same thing.
If you thought so, you'd be wrong.
If you find yourself in a debate about cannabis regulation, here are some key things to keep in mind about the differences between decriminalization and legalization.
Decriminalization and Legalization?
The outcome of each system is that consumers avoid arrest and prosecution for possession of small amounts of cannabis. However, the similarities end there.
Under a system of decriminalization even though police are instructed to ignore the possession of personal amounts of cannabis, the production and sale of cannabis are usually still illegal. Depending on the jurisdiction in question, a grower or supplier could face a slap on the wrist, fines or prison time even if personal use of cannabis has been decriminalized there.
When the government legalizes cannabis, like in Colorado, for instance, it removes the criminal penalties for possession, as well as regulating and taxing the market. This means that a cannabis consumer can buy an eighth in a dispensary just like grabbing a latte in Starbucks.
Countries That Have Legalized Or Decriminalized
Cannabis is legal in 11 states in the US and completely legal in Canada and Uruguay.
Almost 50 countries around the world have decriminalized cannabis in some way. In the US, 24 states have done so as well. However, decriminalization can mean different things. A local in Bogotá could probably smoke a joint in the park if she wanted; a tourist might get arrested for the same thing.
Two of the best-known decriminalization models are found in the Netherlands and Portugal. The Netherlands tolerates thepersonal use of cannabis and its sale and use in coffeeshops but prosecutes illegal growers and suppliers. Portugal permits small amounts and has legislation for the medical use of cannabis. Growing is illegal.
So Why Decriminalize?
Critics of decriminalization argue that decriminalization offers the worst of both worlds. Consumers are shepherded into the black market to buy cannabis, criminal gangs enjoy outsized profits and the government collects zero taxes.
Ultimately, decriminalization is a fudge. As a long term solution to cannabis prohibition, or indeed the prohibition of any drug, decriminalization is inadequate. Despite its best intentions, decriminalization lacks the fairness and objectivity of good legislation. Consumers continue to face the arbitrary whims of law enforcement, and criminal organizations continue to make black market profits, albeit with a lower risk profile.
However, decriminalization can work well as a stepping stone to a legal market. Legalization is still a big ask in a lot of places and the list of failed legalization bills is long. Decriminalization can be a welcome pit stop along the way.
Decriminalization also represents an important acknowledgment by the government. An acknowledgment that the use of cannabis by adults is not a criminal act; it is an act of personal sovereignty.