What’s the Difference Between Decriminalization and Legalization?

jar of small marijuana nugs

The past five years were a wild ride for marijuana reform in the United States, and it’s hard to keep track of it all. Every state is taking a different approach towards its cannabis laws which makes it difficult for the public to fully know what’s going on in the world of marijuana today. Aside from the rise of legalization, the presence of 21+ dispensaries in fully legal markets, and the more well-established medical dispensaries present in the majority of U.S states, many states are taking baby steps towards marijuana reform with decriminalization.

Plenty of consumers are unaware of the legal differences behind decriminalization vs. legalization. While decriminalization is still forward-motion for marijuana reform, it is nowhere near as drastic of a change as full legalization.

What is Marijuana Decriminalization?

judge in court

It’s essential to distinguish the differences between decriminalization and legalization to stay within the state laws. With decriminalization vs legalization, decriminalization is a necessary, yet, a minor step towards major marijuana reform within a state. In a nutshell, decriminalization merely diminishes or loosens the criminal consequences of possessing or consuming small amounts of marijuana. Let’s say someone got pulled over with an eighth of weed in a state with only decriminalization laws; odds are, the cop will either look the other way or issue a small fine.

Sure, decriminalization makes the risk of consuming marijuana far less, but it does not remove all consequences. There are a few essential things to know about marijuana decriminalization.

  • The consumption of marijuana is still illegal.
  • The manufacturing or cultivation of marijuana remains illegal.
  • The sale of distribution of marijuana remains illegal.
  • The possession of large amounts of marijuana and the intent to sell marijuana remains illegal.

When a state decriminalizes marijuana, it shows that the state recognizes the waste of resources used to enforce minor marijuana laws. It does not allow for any medical or recreational market to take place. Decriminalization does not establish any sort of marijuana regulation or legalization. Nevertheless, every state needs to start somewhere, and decriminalization is the perfect first step.

States with Decriminalization Laws

As of 2019, there are 23 states and Washington D.C. with decriminalization laws in the United States. It is likely this number will continue to increase as marijuana reform spreads throughout the nation. While some of these states have looser decriminalization laws than others, they all have some reduced criminal penalties for marijuana.

List of Decriminalized States

Of the list above, there’s a mixture of states with either medical legalization, recreational legalization, or both. In fact, only three of the above states do not have a medical or recreational program alongside their decriminalization laws. Those states are Mississippi, Nebraska, and North Carolina.

Out of the 23 states and the District of Columbia, there are ten states with both medical marijuana programs and decriminalization laws. However, there are also multiple states that have medical marijuana programs but do not have decriminalization laws.

Decriminalization vs Legalization

two joints and bud

When comparing decriminalization vs legalization, you have to acknowledge that decriminalization is a good step towards drastic marijuana reform; however, it does leave the door open for a lot of legal questions. Decriminalization allows for minimal amounts of marijuana possession, but it does not legalize consumption in any manner. If a consumer is caught with marijuana in a decriminalized state, they will still get a fine and lose the product. With that in mind; decriminalization does create additional problems which typically leads to further marijuana reform.

  • Loosens the laws for the black market.
  • Prohibits medical marijuana consumers from obtaining medical marijuana.
  • Decriminalization does not regulate the quality of the marijuana products available.

The main problem with decriminalization vs legalization is that decriminalization doesn’t have much of a positive effect. Sure, it saves the state money in legal and criminal fees and decreases the number of inmates in our prisons, but it still prohibits any medical consumer from having access to marijuana.

Nevertheless, without forward motion, there wouldn’t be any legalized states. Decriminalization is still a vital step in passing beneficial marijuana reform on a state level.

What is Marijuana Legalization?

marijuana dispensary sign

The legalization of marijuana is the end game that the public would like most states to play. It’s the abolishing of marijuana prohibition within a state. Legalization allows for the states to regulate marijuana and collect sales taxes. With legalization, a recreational marijuana market is born, and the cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution of cannabis are now legal.

Typically, when a state fully legalizes marijuana, it becomes completely decriminalized. Now, it doesn’t mean the black market can operate freely. Every state with marijuana legalization establishes set compliance regulations that licensed marijuana businesses must follow. Any market aside from the licensed legal marijuana industry is still considered illegal.

  • Public consumption of marijuana remains illegal under most legalized states.
  • Unlicensed distribution of cultivation of marijuana remains illegal.
  • Marijuana trafficking across state lines is still illegal.
  • There are still possession laws and purchasing limits consumers, and dispensaries must follow.
  • Driving while high, or while consuming marijuana, is illegal and will result in a DUI.

Legalization is a wonderful thing for marijuana reform, and as more states push for legalization, it’s likely the federal government will follow. However, statewide legalization does not allow for a free marijuana market to take place. There are still strict compliance laws and regulations in place to protect the consumers and the industry.

States with Full Legalization:

  • Alaska
  • California
  • Colorado
  • District of Columbia
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Nevada
  • Oregon
  • Vermont
  • Washington

The states above have entirely legalized marijuana within its state’s borders. All of these states have both medical and recreational marijuana programs. The regulations and taxes within each state marijuana market vary drastically. There are also plenty of cities and municipalities that do not allow marijuana businesses to operate within city limits.

Expectations for Marijuana in 2019

marijuana bud and grinder of bud

2019 is a big one for marijuana reform. A majority of the states have some sort of medical or recreational marijuana program as well as decriminalization laws. 2019 will merely add to those numbers and drastically build the already existing marijuana industry. When getting into a conversation about decriminalization vs legalization, make sure you keep an eye out on the following states to make moves towards further cannabis reform this year.

  • Connecticut
  • Illinois
  • Minnesota
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • Rhode Island
  • Wisconsin
  • Pennsylvania
  • Texas

The marijuana industry is booming as more states continue to push for decriminalization and legalization laws. The public is drastically in favor of legalization in the United States, and it seems like it’s only a matter of time before federal legalization will take hold. Recently, the very first federal legalization bill was introduced to the house; H.R. 420.

The new law would remove marijuana from the federal Controlled Substances Act and regulate marijuana similar to alcohol. Not only would this completely restructure the established marijuana markets, but it would remove all gray areas from the legal markets.

It’s quite the sight to see such a lucrative marijuana bill being discussed at a federal level. It will likely take some time for the bill to successfully make it through, which means states will continue to make baby steps towards broad legalization. Whether its decriminalization vs. legalization, both are incredibly beneficial to the worldwide marijuana movement.


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Justice Council
Justice Council is a freelance writer, CBD specialist, and cannabis enthusiast located in Denver, Colorado. His wide range of experience as a budtender, delivery driver, and CBD sales rep has given him a unique look into this new world of cannabis. Throughout his career in the industry, Justice has written many pieces on culture, economics, product knowledge, and career opportunities within the cannabis space. He takes pride in being part of a truly pioneering industry.