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Decriminalization vs. Legalization of Cannabis: What’s the Difference?

Legalization of cannabis means that a state permits recreational use (“adult use”), while decriminalization means that personal cannabis consumption is not a felony crime.

Suppose you consume cannabis in a state that has legalized the plant. In that case, you will not face any penalties, including misdemeanor charges, unless you use cannabis while driving in a public area where children are likely to be present (e.g., a school or park) or in a federally regulated building or workplace.

But if you use marijuana in a state that has decriminalized the plant, you could be charged with a misdemeanor. The most common position in most U.S. states is medical legalization, with 37 states having some form of a medical cannabis or CBD program.

Cannabis laws can be confusing, so we’ll decode the key differences between cannabis decriminalization and cannabis legalization for you.

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What Is Cannabis Decriminalization?

Currently, 27 states have decriminalized cannabis. Decriminalizing cannabis does not mean that the plant is legal. Instead, it means that possessing or consuming small amounts of marijuana will not legally be treated as a serious crime. There may not be any penalty at all for possessing very small amounts.

For example, in New York, there is no penalty for possessing less than three ounces of cannabis, but possessing between three and eight ounces is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and $1,000 in fines.

But New York is a state that has only partially decriminalized/legalized recreational cannabis. Possessing more than eight ounces of weed in New York is a felony punishable by up to four years of incarceration and $5,000 in fines. Therefore, even in states that have made some decriminalization efforts, the more lenient laws do not apply across the board.

In addition, civil fines and other civil penalties may still apply where marijuana has been fully decriminalized. But felony charges and penalties do not apply in states that have completely decriminalized cannabis. Possessing or consuming small quantities of cannabis in fully decriminalized states means you may be charged with a misdemeanor or other minor infraction but not a felony.

Furthermore, many people have been able to get their criminal records expunged in states that have decriminalized cannabis. A prior felony marijuana conviction that could have prevented them from gaining employment or housing gets erased from their record in decriminalized states.

Cannabis decriminalization allows people to have a clean slate concerning their legal status. This benefit of decriminalization is especially notable for people of color who have historically been the targets of the War on Drugs.

What Is Cannabis Legalization?

Recreational marijuana is presently legal in 19 states. Cannabis legalization is lawful to consume marijuana, and cannabis use is considered neither a felony nor a misdemeanor. There are two tiers to cannabis legalization:

  • Legalization of all marijuana, both medical use and recreational use.
  • Legalization of medical marijuana only (for certified cardholders).

The first tier, legalization of all marijuana, is less common in the U.S. than medical marijuana legalization. Legal access to marijuana, whether medical, recreational, or both, makes personal use and possession of the plant permissible.

There is a large illegal market for cannabis in the United States and globally. Purchasing cannabis on the black market risks lower product quality and criminal consequences. Legalizing cannabis removes these barriers and allows people to buy cannabis from legitimately licensed dispensaries.

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What’s More Common in the United States: Decriminalization or Legalization?

As 27 states have decriminalized cannabis, and 19 states have legalized the plant, decriminalization is more common. But, when factoring in the legalization of medical programs,  medical legalization is the most common (37 states have legalized medical cannabis at the time of writing).

While cannabis legalization — especially medical marijuana — is becoming more common in the United States, recreational-use marijuana still faces significant hurdles in most states.

However, some of these states have voted to fully decriminalize marijuana, meaning that you usually do not serve jail time or face criminal charges for possessing or consuming a small amount of cannabis for your first offense. But repeat offenders may still be arrested and charged in some states.

It is also worth remembering that even if state charges are not levied against you, they can still be punished under federal law.

The Bottom Line

The legal status of cannabis is constantly evolving in the United States. Some state laws have provided for the full legalization of marijuana, while others have merely decriminalized the plant. Stay informed of drug legalization and drug decriminalization laws in your home state before purchasing marijuana.

Experience the benefits of cannabis products with a medical marijuana card in your state. Book your telehealth appointment and start obtaining a medical cannabis card online.

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