It’s not just a case of tomato/tomatoh when it comes to legalization and decriminalization. Despite how often the two are used interchangeably, there are distinctions between the two that must be understood. Here are the differences, advantages and disadvantages of the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana.

What is Legalization?

Legalization is when an activity is lawfully regulated by the government for revenue purposes, and therefore no longer considered criminal or unlawful conduct. For a drug like marijuana, drug possession charges and other criminal penalties are completely removed when fully legalized.

What is Decriminalization?

Decriminalization is when an activity is no longer classified as a criminal act, but often a civil infraction. Unlike legalization, decriminalization is still unregulated by the government; while marijuana is decriminalized, it is still illegal as it is not lawful in the eyes of the government. Though criminal penalties for things like the possession of drugs are removed, minor punishments, such as fines, are still present.

Still confused? Watch this video.

Differences in the Distribution and Sale of Marijuana

weedstuff Legalization vs. Decriminalization: Why Does It Matter?
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If marijuana is legalized, this means that the government recognizes it as lawful for people to distribute and sell marijuana, and can impose restrictions (such as age) and taxation like it does for alcohol and tobacco.

For decriminalization, although possessing specified amounts only results in a small fine, the production, distribution and sale of weed is still considered illegal. Certain exceptions can exist, like the coffee shops in the Netherlands.

Advantages of Both

The benefits of legalizing weed are clear and straightforward: marijuana is no longer illegal to possess, use and distribute, but is instead heavily regulated by the government. This allows the government to control who can use/produce/distribute and the quality of the substance, as well as generate tax revenue.

By decriminalizing weed, the imprisonment rate of recreational users would decrease, as well as the government funds spent on policing and incarceration.

Disadvantages of Both

Without strict restrictions from the government, legalization of marijuana could allow for corporations to take control of the drug trade and become the next Big Tobacco or pharmaceutical. For legalization, it could create a situation where drugs are too normalized and relied upon in society with its heavy prevalence.

For decriminalization, drugs would still be illegal, which would allow for drug cartels and gangs to profit and fund other criminal activity.

Examples of Legalization

Colorado and Washington are two examples of legalization today. Colorado’s legalization includes private cultivation of up to six plants, with no more than three mature plants. Washington requires state licenses from sellers, distributors and producers. The state also allows licensed growers to cultivate marijuana, but does not permit personal growing in one’s home except for in medical cases.

Examples of Decriminalization

legalmap Legalization vs. Decriminalization: Why Does It Matter?
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The decriminalization of cannabis is seen in European countries like Portugal and the Netherlands. In Portugal, you can still be arrested or assigned mandatory rehab if caught with marijuana several times. Portugal has also decriminalized other illicit drugs with great results. In the Netherlands, marijuana is sold in coffee shops and a person may possess up to five grams.


Header photo credit: hanfparade