Source: Marijuana Policy Project

Graph depicts states in which marijuana is legal for adults and taxed & regulated similiarly to alchohol, in addition to states that have removed jail time for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Source: Marijuana Policy Project (Decriminalization)

“Decriminalization” refers to enforcement that regards the possession of a drug as a civil, but not a criminal offense. Some supporters for drug decriminalization call for drug law reforms to treat drug possession much like a minor traffic violation. Under this model, the penalty for possession is be a ticket or fine. Currently fourteen states have decriminalized marijuana possession, but have not legalized or regulated cannabis.

Decriminalization of marijuana has wide support in the United States. It is a major step forward. Individuals who possess and use drugs should not be criminalized. Our drug laws have devastated communities of color, contributed significantly to mass incarceration, and destroyed individual lives.

Decriminalization is central to the current debate about the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. Opponents of legalization argue that decriminalization adequately addresses the profound social injustices, especially against people of color, that have been imposed due our marijuana laws. They fail to realize that the fines that remain under decriminalization can be oppressive to the poor, that marijuana arrests fall in states that have moved to legalization. Further, the movement to legalize marijuana is prompting states who take this step to provide “reparations” through record expungement of marijuana convictions and other measures.

In recent years, public health and drug policy advocates have called for decriminalization of all drugs with Portugal often held up as a model. In Portugal, there is no punishment for drug possession, but drugs (including marijuana) are not legalized or regulated and selling drugs is still criminalized. If individuals are caught possessing less than a ten-day supply of a particular drug, they are sent to a Dissuasion Commission consisting of a doctor, lawyer and social worker.  The Commission determines if the individual needs treatment, and imposes a minor fine or community service. Treatment is available for all who need It.

 Since Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001, rates of drug use have not gone up significantly, while overdose death rates, HIV infection rates, and incarceration rates for drug offenses have all plummeted.

Determining which drugs should be either decriminalized or legalized, and how access to drugs should be regulated, is nuanced and complex. There is no simple answer that could apply to drugs as varying in safety and addiction risks as marijuana, cocaine, and heroine. In his book Regulating Vice, University of Chicago professor James Leitzel goes into detail about the factors that should be considered in this debate.

It is also important to note that decriminalization on its own will not help protect people who use drugs or those with substance use disorders. It is crucial to invest in harm reduction programs such as syringe exchanges and safe consumption facilities, treatment for people with use disorders, and education on the risks associated with drug use and how to minimize those risks. However, all of those programs would be more effective under decriminalization than they would be under prohibition.

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Decriminalization In the News 

Norway Aiming to Decriminalise, UK should Legalize
The Guardian – January 28, 2018

Law Enforcement, Mental Health Effort Offers Treatment
Carolina Public Press – January 17, 2018

States Undeterred by Reversal of Pot Policy
Governing – January 4, 2018

Restarting War on Pot, Affront to Young Voters
The Washington Post – January 4, 2018

Trump Administration Threatens Legal Marijuana
The New York Times – January 4, 2018

The Failed War on Drugs?
The New York Times – December 31, 2017

Will Hawaii be the first state to decriminalize all drugs?
Sun Times – April 1, 2016

Which States are Eyeing Cannabis Decriminalization in 2016?
Leafly – January 4, 2016

Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Filed in Illinois, Faith Leaders Voice Support
Daily Chronic – December 10, 2015

Decriminalise drugs to meet users’ right to good health, says UN adviser
The Guardian – December 9, 2015

Decriminalizing Drugs: When Treatment Replaces Prison
The New York Times – December 8, 2015

Blog Posts on Decriminalization