Decriminalization vs Legalization: What's the Difference?

Posted by Halina Reagan on

The decriminalization of weed and other substances has come to the fore of modern politics. What des decriminalization mean? For many, especially black and brown people in the United States, it's the difference between having a record (and even facing jail time) and not. But keep in mind the difference between decriminalization vs legalization: the former does not mean that everything is legal.

The following is neither medical nor legal advice. It was written for informational purposes only (do not take everything you read on the internet as gospel).

What Does Decriminalization Mean?

  • It means that something (typically possessing a specific quantity of something) is no longer considered a criminal offense that goes on someone's personal record, nor will result in jail time.
  • In the case of cannabis, it means that possession of a certain amount does not translate to an arrest, prison time, or criminal record.
  • Discrimination vs legalization are very different: The former may still result in a fine, depending on the quantity, intent to sell, and state-specific guidelines; Legalization means that a certain amount of weed and/or plants for personal consumption is legal within state lines.
  • Legislation varies widely--especially state-to-state. Check with local authorities for up-to-date information on your municipality.
  • It is still possible to be arrested for a substance after it has been decriminalized. Typically, above a certain amount and/or with the intent to sell affect whether or not possession is a crime.
  • Decriminalization of weed is not the only type of this legislation. Whether or not the possession of psychedelics and other substances should be treated as criminal is hotly debated.

What does decriminalization mean? It is a legal term that typically means that something is no longer considered illegal or a criminal offense. In the world of weed, this may mean that possessing a certain small amount will result in a fine, at worst. It does not mean that cannabis is legalized.

Cannabis Decriminalization vs. Legalization

No longer viewing possession of cannabis as a criminal offense is typically seen as the first step toward legalization. This is why those opposed to legalizing weed are often opposed to decriminalization; the next step is perceived to be full legalization.

Legalization varies significantly between states. In some, such as Minnesota, Ohio, and New York, minor weed possession will not result in jail time, however, it is still considered a criminal offense. In other states, weed decriminalization means that small quantities are not criminal.

legalization vs decriminalization

31 States (and 1 District) with Weed Decriminalization

Today, the following states have some form of legislation in place that ensures that small quantities of weed are not punished with jail time. Keep in mind that intent to distribute, decriminalized amount per person, fines, and legal nature of the crime vary state-to-state.

DISCLAIMER: The following is not legal advice and was written for educational purposes only. Please see state websites for up-to-date legislation.

State

Weed Decriminalization Overview

Alaska Less than 4 oz in residence without intent to distribute*
Arizona legislation in progress (expected 2021)
California

Up to 1 oz is legal. 28.5 grams or less is a misdemeanor with up to 10 days in prison and a maximum fine of $250.

Colorado Up to 1 oz (possession and transfer) is legal. 1-2 oz or public use of less than 2 oz qualifies as a petty offense (max fine $100).
Connecticut Less than 1/2 oz is a civil penalty with maximum fines of $150 and $500 for 1st and 2nd offenses, respectively.
Delaware Up to 1 oz is a civil violation with a maximum fine of $100.
District of Columbia Possession of less than 2 oz and cultivation of 6 plants or fewer is legal. Public use is a misdemeanor (no fine or incarceration).
Hawaii Up to 3 grams is a violation with a maximum fine of $130.
Illinois Up to 30 grams is legal. Over 30 grams is considered a misdemeanor and may result in a maximum fine of $2,500 or up to 1 year of jail time.
Maine Up to 2.5 ounces is legal. 2.5-9 oz is considered a crime with a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to 6 months incarceration.
Maryland
Less 10g of weed is a civil offense.
Massachusetts Up to 1 oz in public and 10 oz in the home is legal
Michigan Up to 2.5 oz on one's person and up to 10 oz at home is legal. First-time possession of 2.5-5 oz is a civil infraction with a maximum fine of $500.
Minnesota 42.5 grams or less is considered a misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $200.
Mississippi 30 grams or less is considered a misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $250.
Missouri 10 grams or less is considered a misdemeanor with maximum fines of $500 and $2,000 for the 1st and 2nd offenses, respectively. Second offense may result in up to 1 year incarceration.
Nebraska 1 oz or less is considered an infraction with a fine of up to $300 for a first offense. 1 oz is considered a misdemeanor with potential incarceration time and a fine of $500 for second and third offenses.
Nevada Up to 1 oz is legal. Possession of more than 1 oz or consumption in public are misdemeanors with a maximum fine of $600.
New Hampshire Up to 3/4 oz is a civic violation with a maximum fine of $100.
New Jersey Up to 6 oz will be decriminalized under new legislation. New Jersey legalized recreational weed in November 2020.
New Mexico Up to 1/2 oz has a maximum fine of $50. 1/2-1 oz is considered a misdemeanor with up to 15 days in jail and a maximum fine of $100.
New York 28 grams is considered a violation with a maximum fine of $50. 28 grams - 2 oz is considered a violation with a maximum fine of $200.
North Carolina 0.5 oz or less is a misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $200.
North Dakota 0.5 or less is a criminal infraction with a fine of up to $1,000
Ohio 100 grams or less is a misdemeanor with a fine up to $150
Oregon 1 oz or less is legal. 1-2 oz is a violation with a maximum fine of $650.
Rhode Island Up to 1 oz is a civil violation with a maximum fine of $150.
South Dakota
Up to 1 oz was legalized in November 2020.
Vermont 1 oz or less is legal. First offense possession of 1-2 oz is a misdemeanor with up to 6 months in jail and a maximum fine of $500
Virginia Up to 1 oz is a civil violation with a maximum fine of $25.
Washington Up to 1 oz is legal unless consumed in public. In this case, it may receive a maximum fine of $100.

 *as determined by state court. Penalty/incarceration laws for different quantities apply if there is intent to distribute or proof of sale. Additionally, states may impose harsher restrictions for possession on school grounds, possession by a minor, and second/third-time offenses. Some states with legal weed have different legal quantities when it comes to dry herb weed strains vs dabs (think: shatter or BHO).

Countries With Weed Decriminalization Measures

Many countries are lenient when it comes to possession of small amounts of cannabis. Here's a brief overview of some of the countries that may have decriminalized weed (bearing in mind that legislation differs widely between them and this is not legal advice).

 Country

Decriminalization vs. Legalization

Austria Small amounts are not illegal and cannabis for medical or research purposes is also legal. On the whole, the plant remains an illegal substance.
Belgium Adults 18+ may possess up to 3 grams in Belgium, though weed is technically illegal.
Belize Less than 10 grams is not illegal as of 2017.
Bermuda Up to 7 grams is decriminalized as of 2017.
Canada** Since October 2018, cannabis has been legal in Canada (18+). The legal limit for dry herb is 30 grams and farming of up to 4 plants is permitted (provinces have specific laws in place).
Chile
Private, at-home consumption is permitted. Legislation has gone to the Chilean Senate regarding cannabis for recreational, medical and spiritual reasons.
Colombia Personal cultivation and use are decriminalized; Medical cannabis is also legal. Recreational sale is prohibited.
Costa Rica Personal use of narcotics and weed is illegal but not penalized. However, cultivation, distribution and sale are prosecuted.
Czech Republic Possession of a small amount of weed is decriminalized. However, cultivation and "large" amounts may receive harsher measures.
Ecuador Up to 10 grams for personal use is legal. Constitutionally, drugs are seen as a health issue not a legal one.
Estonia Up to 7.5 years may receive a fine and is considered for personal use. The plant itself remains illegal.
Georgia Personal use is legal as of a ruling in 2018, however sale and cultivation are not.
Israel Though there may be strict penalties for drugs of all kind, Israeli law may make exceptions for individuals with a small amount of a substance and those without a criminal record.
Jamaica Famous for ganja and its influence on reggae music, Jamaica decriminalized cannabis in 2015. Cultivating 5 or fewer plants is allowed and possession of up to 2 ounces is non-criminal.
Malta Possession of a personal quantity (3.5 grams or less) is decriminalized, however possession is still an arrestable offense in order to control illegal trade.
Mexico Personal quantities of various narcotics and cannabis are not punishable if outside of institutions such as prisons and schools.
New Zealand Has programs designed to assist offenders through counseling and rehabilitation and reduce those in the criminal justice system.
Norway Cannabis is on the country's list of criminalized substances. Drug treatment programs may be available instead of jail time.
Paraguay Up to 10 grams for personal use is not punishable under Paraguayan law.
Perú Personal use (up to 8 grams) and medical are legal as of 2017. Cultivation and sale remain illegal.
Portugal Famous for the decriminalization of drugs (possession for own consumption) in 2000, Portugal has a robust addition education and prevention program.
Slovenia Slovenia has decriminalized the plant for personal use. It is considered a misdemeanor and may receive a fine or up to 5 days in jail.
South Africa Possession and cultivation for personal are no longer illegal.
Spain Spain does not prosecute for personal use and cultivation, however selling weed remains illegal. Spain is also well-known for its cannabis clubs, which are technically legal despite the plant's illegality.
Switzerland In 2012, Switzerland decriminalized possession of 10 grams for less for personal use. Instead, users may receive a small fine.
Uruguay** Since 2013, cannabis for personal use, home grows, weed "clubs" and dispensaries (still in the process) have been legal.

 

*Decriminalization of weed applies only in the Northern Territory, South Australia, and Australian Capital Territory.

**Recreational cannabis is legal.

Countries with Lenient Weed Laws

Though the following countries may punish cannabis possession, some of them offer alternatives to fines and prison time.

 Country

Potential Legal Ramifications

Argentina

Possession is punishable by law and may result in 1 month to 2 years of prison. However, rehabilitation may replace prison time.
Australia* This country has not decriminalized drugs, though some jurisdictions may punish weed possession with a fine or notice rather than prosecution.
Bolivia Weed remains illegal under Bolivian law, however may result in rehabilitation and education efforts.
Brazil Though possession is not legal, a personal quantity of an illegal substance may instead be punished with community service, education, or a warning.
Denmark Though illegal, weed use is acceptable in the Freetown neighborhood of Copenhagen. Medical use is also legal as of 2016.
Germany Consumption of illegal narcotics and cannabis is illegal under German law, though courts 
Ireland Weed is illegal in Ireland. Sentences may vary besides on quantity and whether it qualifies as personal use, which could result in a fine.
Netherlands Despite Amsterdam coffeeshops, cannabis is illegal under Dutch law. Cannabis is a schedule II substance: Their sale is allowed in coffee shops to prevent "soft" drug users from coming into contact with hard drugs.

Some countries place cannabis in a class of its own. Others have more overarching legislation on the decriminalization of drugs of all kinds. Some turn a blind eye to recreational consumption below a certain limit. One thing is for sure: The decriminalization of weed varies far and wide--and continues to evolve as more people come out in support of medical and recreational use alike.

DISCLAIMER: The following is not legal or medical advice, as always.

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