What Does Decriminalized Marijuana Mean?

Decriminalized marijuana is very different from marijuana legalization. While the moves to decriminalize marijuana vary from state to state, they typically make it no longer a crime to possess small amounts of marijuana, although it may still be confiscated and people may face civil fines in some states.

Decriminalized marijuana should never be confused with legalization. Legalization allows for the production and sale of either recreational or medical marijuana and marijuana-infused products. Decriminalized marijuana does not allow that but does reduce or eliminate the crime of having a small amount in your possession.

Criminal Laws on Marijuana

Marijuana possession still makes up most marijuana-related arrests in the United States.

The Drug Policy Alliance reports that in 2017 – even after legalization of adult-use and medical marijuana by voters in more than 30 states – the number of marijuana arrests was still 659,700 nationwide.

Of those arrested, 90.8% were charged with possession, according to the alliance.

In some states, lawmakers looked at these kinds of numbers and decided to make some changes. Starting mostly in the Northeast, states such as Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York began to pass laws that decriminalized cannabis.

In most cases, this meant repealing laws that charged people with a crime if they possess lesser amounts of marijuana. The national marijuana advocate organization NORML lists 22 states that have decriminalized marijuana.

Of those, some have gone on to legalize marijuana, including Alaska, Californi, and Massachusetts.

Decriminalized Marijuana Facts

There are many factors to keep in mind if you live in a state or plan to travel to a state that has decriminalized marijuana but has not made it legal.

Legalization means that the state has set up a regulatory system that governs the marijuana industry from seed to sale. Companies that grow, transport or sell marijuana must have a license from the state.

In decriminalized states, the only change is you will not get charged with a crime if caught in possession of small amounts of marijuana. But this raises many issues on a practical level.

  • It’s important to know what a “small amount” of marijuana means, because the number varies from state to state. This information can usually be found online by searching for the state name and “marijuana laws.”
  • While possession of small amounts of marijuana is not a crime in these states, it can come with a civil penalty if law enforcement officers decide to fine you.
  • Law enforcement can “look the other way” if people have small amounts, but that’s like counting on a traffic officer to look the other way if you park illegally or violate some other “minor” traffic law. In other words, don’t count on it.
  • Even in states where marijuana is legalized, you can’t use it in public places – pretty much everywhere outside of a home or private club (until cannabis cafes, which have started in Denver, take off around the country)
  • It’s not legal anywhere to operate a motor vehicle while using marijuana.

Decriminalized marijuana was a step forward in the early days of the marijuana movement. While it can save people from jail time and a criminal record, it’s important to keep in mind that it doesn’t mean marijuana is legal.

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