Times are changing, and marijuana law is changing with it. Where once the federal government and all 50 states barred the drug completely, four states have now legalized it for any use while more than 30 others allow some form of medical cannabis.
Still, change has not progressed at the same pace everywhere. While Colorado, Washington State, Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia have all legalized cannabis, many other states still treat possession for personal use as a crime. And in others, the drug has been decriminalized.
What is marijuana decriminalization?
But what exactly is “decriminalization?” Is it the same everywhere? What does it mean for the medical marijuana market, police and prosecutors, and everyday cannabis users?
Nineteen states have decriminalized marijuana. The first was Oregon in 1973, followed by the other 18 over the next four decades. California and New York are the most populous states to enact decriminalization.
States that have decriminalized marijuana
The following list includes all states with decriminalization laws.
District of Columbia *
North Carolina **
* Voters in these states have gone on to fully legalize recreational marijuana
** Possession of marijuana is still classified as a criminal misdemeanor, but they are not punishable by jail time.
Decriminalization removes criminal penalties
Decriminalization means different things in different jurisdictions, but the idea is the same: Instead of threatening cannabis consumers with jail time and permanent criminal records, police issue civil citations. This means a relatively small fine, though the amount varies widely between states. Maine has the steepest fine, up to $600, while most states levy fines of $100 to $200. Some large cities have decriminalized even while their states have not, and they sometimes charge as little as $25 per offense.
In some of the 21 states, including Minnesota, Missouri, and Nevada, minor possession is still treated formally as a criminal misdemeanor. But in all these places, the maximum penalty is still a fine, and citations rarely lead to any kind of criminal record. This is a big benefit to marijuana users, as a public rap sheet can make it impossible to get a job, rent an apartment, or obtain needed loans.
Of course, the lack of incarceration is also a big deal. Even in New York City, where cannabis has been officially decriminalized since 1977, police until recently routinely used a loophole to arrest users and imprison thousands of them overnight in the city’s notorious jails. That policy was scrapped by Mayor Bill de Blasio, though it remains to be seen how effectively.
A step towards full legalization
Unfortunately, marijuana decriminalization isn’t enough to end police harassment of tokers. Officers still stop users, take their marijuana, and fine them. But the idea is widely seen as a stepping stone to full legalization. All of the states with legal cannabis were already decriminalized when voters chose to legalize in 2012 and 2014.
Surprisingly, decriminalization isn’t concentrated entirely in marijuana-friendly parts of the United States. Mississippi, North Carolina, and Missouri have all decriminalized in the South, along with conservative Nebraska and Ohio in the Midwest. But most decriminalized states are located in the American West and on the East Coast, both places where legalization has strong public support.