Legalization vs. Decriminalization: What’s the Difference and Why Does It Matter?

Legalization and Decriminalization: What's the Difference?
Dominic Nicosia

Written By

Dominic Nicosia

The House has officially voted to decriminalize marijuana for the second time in less than two years, potentially putting an end to the enduring legislative tug of war between state and federal levels of government. While there is still a difficult path for the legislation toward a Presidential signature, it has renewed conversations about the difference between decriminalization and legalization of marijuana and why it’s an important distinction. The legislation also provides mechanisms to vacate or modify certain convictions of low-level offenders and begin to reverse the course of what many describe as an epidemic of unfair and disproportionate incarceration. Here’s why it may be important for you or your loved one.

What Does “Legalization” Mean?

While it may seem self-explanatory, to legalize a drug, or anything else, means to remove all prohibitions and make it permissible without fear of legal repercussions. In the context of marijuana, this has largely meant transitioning from legalization for purely medical reasons to recreational use. With recent ballot measures, there are now 19 states where adult use of marijuana is fully legal, in addition to dozens more that allow for regulated medical use. A third of Americans now live in a state where weed is legal for adult use. Nearly 70 percent of the country favors having legal access to marijuana.

What Does “Decriminalization” Mean?

Unlike making something totally legal, decriminalization removes vulnerability to arrest and prosecution for a still-illegal offense. In the context of drug use, specifically marijuana, this principle applies to possession under certain amounts. Each state that has chosen decriminalization over straight legalization has its own amounts that fall under these protections. Although the act, itself, remains illegal, the legal system would not take legal action.

Part of the motivation for these decriminalization measures is to cease draconian sentencing measures for low-level marijuana offenders, many of whom have spent years in prison for what we now often consider minor offenses. While the term has, until very recently, been confined to marijuana, the latest measure in Oregon may signal a gradual values shift toward exploring treatment over incarceration through the decriminalization of harder drugs.

While a majority of states, on some level, have removed prohibitions against marijuana use, its possession remains a federal crime, and there is little reason to believe that that will change any time soon. The Senate majority remains reluctant to make any move toward federal decriminalization, despite House action earlier this year. For the foreseeable future, millions of Americans across the country will be engaging in activity that is perfectly legal in their state but still designated as a federal crime. It’s important to realize that, while undeniably the target of decades-long hyperbole, marijuana is still a dangerous drug that can result in impaired judgment and very often leads to other drug use.

Decriminalization, Legalization, and Treatment: What’s the Connection?

With these admittedly more humane and intuitive efforts to decriminalize drug use comes a cry for increased access to treatment over arrest and incarceration. It’s the hope of legislators and advocates that removing the risk of legal exposure will help people get help and get the second chance they deserve, rather than have their lives derailed by one poor decision or a chronic medical disease. On a clinical level, we’re seeing more and more evidence that limited integration of certain substances that have long been the subjects of legal battles and cultural controversy being integrated into addiction and mental health treatment. For example, there is a growing body of research to suggest limited cannabis use may play a role in ameliorating the effects of opioid use disorder. Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of psilocybin, the primary psychoactive compound in “magic mushrooms,” in the treatment of certain types of mental disorder.

Each state has its own laws governing the use of marijuana. For example, marijuana is legal in Florida for limited medicinal purposes. Texas marijuana law limits the medicinal use of cannabis to CBD oil. In Nashville and the rest of Tennessee, marijuana use of any kind remains illegal under state law. In Virginia, marijuana is decriminalized (not legalized) but limits medicinal use to CBD oil. To reiterate, MARIJUANA POSSESSION IS STILL A FEDERAL CRIME, which can supersede any state law. Recovery Unplugged offers court liaison services to help you or your loved one explore the possibility of treatment when you’re facing legal issues related to drug possession and substance use-related offenses.

It’s Complicated…

There’s no question that the immediate dangers of marijuana have been exaggerated throughout the decades, an effort that, however well-intentioned for public health reasons, has had a very real impact on certain communities and individuals. These misguided perceptions have cost many low-level offenders years of their lives through disproportionate sentencing, fracturing many of their families and, in many respects, perpetuating the cycle of drug use through future generations.

On the other hand, the dangers of marijuana abuse are very real, as with harder drugs, and may require comprehensive treatment. If you or your loved one are struggling with drug abuse, whether or not marijuana is part of your problem, don’t worry about what others are saying and focus on getting the help you need. Recovery Unplugged is ready to help you cut out the noise and start healing from drug abuse and addiction in your own way. Our representatives are standing by 24-7 to guide you toward treatment.

Dominic Nicosia

Dominic Nicosia

The Senior Content Writer here at Recovery Unplugged, Dominic Nicosia oversees the maintenance of our online blog while also handling and overseeing all written communications within Marketing. He also writes articles, thought leadership pieces, and basically everything written regarding web content. Dominic has over seven years of writing experience in the addiction care field and a Bachelor of Arts in Professional Writing from the University of Arts in Philadelphia. Dominic has been writing and playing music for years and is the proud owner of a Jack Russell/Pitbull mix named Jack. His favorite books are The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre, and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
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