Decriminalization, a noun, is the reduction or end of criminal penalties for certain acts, sometimes retroactively, although fines or regulated permits may still apply.

Decriminalization: Usage and Meaning

Decriminalization is like half of the legal and social puzzle for any given issue, while legalization represents the other half.

“Legalization” as a phrase was originally used in the context of sex work, but now is most often heard in the discussion of drug laws. Criminalization is the opposite of decriminalization.

Typically, decriminalization happens as a society’s collective moral and social views change over time. A culture may arrive at the idea that an act should no longer be criminalized, is no harmful or never was, or simply shouldn’t be dealt with in the criminal justice system.


  • “I always find it weird when a state supports medical marijuana but not decriminalization. I mean—they’ve legally acknowledged the medicinal value, right? I don’t get it.”
  • As of the 2020 election, there are 15 recreational or legalized cannabis states, 14 medical and decriminalized states, 7 medical marijuana states which have not decriminalized, 2 states which have only decriminalized cannabis, and 12 states where cannabis is just plain illegal.”
  • “Yes, Grishelle, I support decriminalization of cannabis, I just don’t understand stopping there.”
  • “Sorry, no, I don’t see how decriminalizing drugs leads to everyone freely murdering at will without penalty. I think that’s a specious argument, Barenne.”

Decriminalization vs Legalization

Some people mistakenly use “decriminalization” and “legalization” interchangeably, particularly in the context of drug laws. However, there are important differences between legalization and decriminalization.

Decriminalization means removing criminal sanctions against a thing, act, or behavior. Decriminalizing cannabis would mean that possession, manufacturing, and sale of it was illegal, but that people who possessed amounts under a threshold set by the legal system would not be prosecuted. Instead, they would receive no penalties, drug education, or treatment, civil fines, or some combination of these things. Practically, law enforcement places cannabis enforcement at the bottom of their list of priorities under decriminalization, and mostly ignores the possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use.

Legalization goes much further, removing all legal prohibitions against cannabis so it is available to the general adult population at will for purchase and use, much like alcohol and tobacco. Legalization enables the government to tax and regulate cannabis sales and use. It further saves taxpayer money by eliminating low level drug prosecutions from the judicial system.

Arguments for Decriminalization

There are plenty of arguments for decriminalization of drugs:

  • Reduce incarceration costs
  • Free law enforcement resources
  • Prioritize health and safety for drug users over punishment
  • Encourage users to seek treatment by reducing the stigma associated with drug use
  • Eliminate barriers to science-based harm reduction methods such as drug-assisted treatment, drug checking, and medical marijuana

Defelonization, the reduction of violations of drug laws to misdemeanors from felonies, can be a step toward decriminalization. However, misdemeanors still have criminalizing impacts that negatively affect how users seek treatment, so defelonization does not go far enough.

Arguments for Legalization

In fact, many argue that decriminalization does not go far enough, and is not that meaningful without complete legalization of cannabis. Allowing the legal sale and manufacturing of cannabis takes the industry away from criminals, and enables regulation, a safer product, and income for states.

Furthermore, decriminalization makes the most sense as a step on the road to full legalization, because under decriminalization alone, only criminals profit from an illegal product. This means the business stays a criminal monopoly, no matter what the law says about personal possession. It’s not low level users that are responsible for murdering rival gangs and corrupting police, for example.

Is Decriminalization Risky?

Spoiler alert: no. Although many people fear that decriminalizing drugs will lead to more drug use, crime, and general mayhem, there is no evidence for that idea. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, data indicates that treating problem drug use like a health problem rather than a criminal justice issue protects the safety and health of communities more successfully.

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