Legalization and Decriminalization: What's the Difference?

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

The 2020 Election wasn’t all about the Presidency. It was also the next phase in the legal and cultural reckoning of how society engages with, perceives and treats the use of marijuana and hard drugs, specifically highlighting differences between the terms legalization and decriminalization. Montana, Arizona, New Jersey and South Dakota were the latest states to approve marijuana ballot measures, the latter three voting to legalize recreational use. Out west, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize smaller amounts of heroin and other street drugs. These two developments, at large, are part of a broader cultural shift; but, in practice, they mean very different things. As more and more states prioritize factors like harm reduction and treatment over enforcement, it’s helpful to understand the fundamental difference between drug legalization and decriminalization.

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 the 2020 ballot measures, there are now 15 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 principal applies to possession under certain amounts. Each state that has chosen decriminalization over straight legalization has their 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 decriminalization of harder drugs.

“Legal” Remains a Relative Term

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.

Is Marijuana Legal in My State?

Each state has their 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 POSESSION 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 just 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.

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