Decriminalisation Vs Legalisation

Written by Tom Murse | 10 Mar 2020

Some people mistakenly use the terms decriminalization and legalisation interchangeably when discussing cannabis laws. There are important distinctions between the two.

When Colorado allowed retail pot stores to open in 2014, it sparked discussion across the country about whether medicinal or recreational use should be decriminalised or legalised. Some states have decriminalised it, while others have legalised it.


Decriminalization is a loosening of criminal penalties imposed for personal use even though the manufacturing and sale of the substance remain illegal.

Essentially, under decriminalization, law enforcement is instructed to look the other way when it comes to the possession of small amounts of cannabis meant for personal use.

Under decriminalization, both the production and sale remain unregulated by the state. Those caught using the substance face civil fines instead of criminal charges.


Legalisation, on the other hand, is the lifting or abolishment of laws banning the possession and personal use of cannabis. More importantly, legalization allows the government to regulate and tax cannabis use and sales.

Proponents also make the case that taxpayers can save millions of dollars by removing from the judicial system the hundreds of thousands of offenders caught with small amounts of cannabis.

Arguments in favour of decriminalising

Proponents of decriminalising argue that it doesn't make sense to give the federal government the authority to legalize the use of cannabis on one hand while attempting to regulate it on the other, much the way it sends conflicting messages about alcohol and tobacco use.

According to Nicholas Thimmesch II, a former spokesman for the pro-cannabis legalization group NORML:

"Where is this legalization going? What confused message is legalization sending to our kids who are told by countless ads not to do any drugs (I do not consider marijuana to be a “drug” in the sense that cocaine, heroin, PCP, meth are) and suffer under “Zero Tolerance” school policies?"

Other opponents of legalisation argue that cannabis is a so-called gateway drug that leads users to other, more serious and more addictive substances.

US states where cannabis is decriminalised

According to NORML, these states have fully decriminalized personal use:

  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Hawaii
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Mississippi
  • Nebraska
  • New Hampshire
  • New Mexico
  • Rhode Island

These states have partially decriminalized certain offences:

  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio

Arguments in favour of legalising

Proponents of complete legalization of cannabis, such as the actions taken in the early states of Washington and Colorado, argue that allowing the manufacturing and sale of the substance removes the industry from the hands of criminals.

They also argue that the regulation of sales makes it safer for consumers and provides a steady stream of new revenue for cash-strapped states.

The Economist magazine wrote in 2014 that decriminalization makes sense only as a step toward full legalization because under the former only criminals would profit from a product that remains outlawed.

According to The Economist:

"Decriminalization is only half the answer. As long as supplying drugs remains illegal, the business will remain a criminal monopoly. Jamaica’s gangsters will continue to enjoy total control over the ganja market. They will go on corrupting police, murdering their rivals and pushing their products to children. People who buy cocaine in Portugal face no criminal consequences, but their euros still end up paying the wages of the thugs who saw off heads in Latin America. For the producer countries, going easy on drug-users while insisting that the product remain illegal is the worst of all worlds."

US states where cannabis is legalised

Eleven states and the District of Columbia have legalized the personal possession of small amounts of cannabis, and, in some cases, the sale of pot in licensed dispensaries.

  • Alaska
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Nevada
  • Oregon
  • Vermont
  • Washington
  • Washington, D.C.

Source: ThoughtCo