Understanding decriminalization vs legalization

Understanding the terms decriminalization and legalization is vital to learning about the current state of cannabis law.  Some might think that the words are interchangeable, but alas, they are not.  Decriminalizing cannabis means that there are no longer felonies and misdemeanors associated with the drug.  Rather, a fine is usually imposed by law enforcement.  Legalization, on the other hand, means that cannabis is free to be used by the general public.

Decriminalization of cannabis is an important step to the full legalization.  States may lean toward decriminalization as opposed to legalization because it starts to bring the penalties, and therefore costs, down for cannabis crime.  Currently, twenty-seven states and Washington DC have decriminalized cannabis.  The costs for arresting and prosecuting those who commit cannabis crimes is astronomical. Decriminalization helps reduce these costs as well as reduce incarceration for nonviolent cannabis offenders.  

Legalization of cannabis is the acceptance of it into mainstream society.  This means that there are no penalties for cannabis use.   Cannabis would be removed from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act and would be available for widespread use. As well, it could be regulated at the federal level, taxed for government income, and backed by insurance companies and banks. Research could be done freely with cannabis availability. Legalization would not mean the end of medical use.  Medical cannabis would be available everywhere.  This means that every state or the federal government would need to create a regulatory framework for medical marijuana separately from recreational.  Medical cannabis needs to be prescribed through doctors according to a treatment plan, not just bought at the corner dispensary.

Some states have already legalized recreational cannabis and many others have decriminalized it.  Decriminalization reduces the costs of everything associated with illegal cannabis (prosecution, incarceration).  Legalization means that both recreational and medical cannabis no longer have any penalties, federally or statewide.  Medical marijuana will have to be treated as a separate entity from recreational, as it is necessary to have a physician and plan to oversee treatment.

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