Cannabis decriminalization is a policy that reduces or eliminates criminal penalties for possession and use. It is different from legalization, which removes criminal penalties and creates a regulated market for cannabis. Decriminalization can take the form of reducing possession to a civil infraction or downgrading possession to a misdemeanor. It is often seen as a step towards legalization and can reduce the burden on the criminal justice system. However, it does not create a legal market for cannabis and it is still illegal to sell or distribute cannabis in states with decriminalization laws.
The war on drugs in the United States has led to a high rate of arrests, with someone being arrested for a cannabis offense every 58 seconds. Most of these arrests, 92%, are for possession alone, rather than for sale or manufacturing. Cannabis criminalization has played a significant role in this trend, with more arrests for cannabis possession each year than for all violent crimes combined.
Decriminalization can help to reduce the disproportionate impact of cannabis criminalization on marginalized communities, and can also have economic benefits. By eliminating criminal penalties for cannabis possession and use, states can save money on law enforcement and incarceration costs, and potentially generate revenue through the regulation and taxation of cannabis sales.
In an effort to address this issue, 31 states, and Washington, D.C. have implemented laws to prevent jailing their residents for possession of small amounts of cannabis.
In 19 of these states, cannabis is legal for adults 21 and older, while 12 have "decriminalized" possession. This means that individuals in these states will not face jail time for possession of small amounts of cannabis, but may still face fines or other penalties.
While decriminalization is an important step towards cannabis reform, it is not a complete solution. Decriminalization does not address the issues of access to medical cannabis for patients, or the ability for individuals to legally grow or sell cannabis.
For example, in states that have decriminalized cannabis, individuals may still face fines or other penalties for possession or use, and may still be subject to drug testing in certain circumstances, such as in the workplace.
Overall, decriminalization is an important component of cannabis reform, but it is not a substitute for full legalization and regulation of the cannabis industry. While decriminalization can help to reduce arrests and incarceration and provide some economic benefits, legalization and regulation can provide a more comprehensive and equitable solution to the issues surrounding cannabis.