The subject of cannabis policy reform is littered with complex jargon and confusing terminology. Though no two terms provoke more confusion and misunderstanding than “legalization” and “decriminalization.”

As the race for the White House heats up, the question of future cannabis policy reform in the United States is a seriously hot topic right now. Particularly given how Joe Biden has hinted as widespread cannabis decriminalization, though nothing close to legalization, if he gets the job later this year.

But what exactly does decriminalization mean? More importantly, what (if anything) is the main difference between decriminalization and legalization?

Decriminalization and Legalization Are Not the Same Thing
Contrary to the common misconception, decriminalization and legalization are actually two entirely different concepts. With decriminalization, the clue is in the name itself - an alteration to cannabis policy that results in small-time cannabis possession and use no longer being a criminal offence.

The simplest comparison would be something like a speeding ticket or a citation for littering. You’re technically breaking the law in both instances (speeding and littering are illegal), but you won’t end up with a criminal record or face the prospect of jail time. Instead, you’re slapped with a fine and told not to do it again.

Where cannabis is decriminalized, it’s pretty much the same - you face a civil fine when caught with small quantities on your person, on the strict condition that it is exclusively for personal use.

However, what constitutes ‘for personal use’ in terms of the quantity you’re carrying differs significantly from one jurisdiction to the next. As do rules regarding where you decide to consume your cannabis and the method by which you’re transporting it (driving with an open cannabis container is illegal in most places).

Legalization of Cannabis
The difference is that with legalization, you’re permitted to carry, consume and (sometimes) grow certain quantities of cannabis, without facing any fines or penalties whatsoever.

Where cannabis is decriminalized, you could still end up with a criminal record or jail-time by pushing things past very strict personal use limitations. Where cannabis has been legalized, you’d have to take things to extremes to end up in trouble.

Decriminalize vs Legalize
As to which of the two works best, the answer is a simple case of common sense. To decriminalize cannabis is to more or less acknowledge the fact that it’s neither a harmful substance nor a threat to society as we know it. The problem is that even when cannabis is decriminalized, there’s still technically no way of getting hold of the stuff legally.

If anything, decriminalization plays directly into the hands of the black market, fueling demand among dealers and growers operating illegally. All of which leads to one massive headache for the jurisdiction in question, along with incalculable losses of potential tax dollars.

When cannabis is legalized, it can be regulated, subjected to extensive quality and safety checks, controlled, monitored and taxed. The simple fact of the matter being that if people want to get hold of cannabis, they’re going to do so - one way or the other. Decriminalization more or less gives folks the green-light to light up (carefully and discreetly), though gives them no legal outlet to score the stuff they need.

Read the Rules Carefully
In any case, it’s important to remember that with both decriminalization and legalization, different states impose very different rules. What’s 100% legal in one state could (literally) see you headed to jail for the best part of a decade a couple of miles away over the nearest state line.

For the time being, therefore, taking things for granted isn’t a good idea. It remains to see how Biden handles the whole thing if he ousts Trump, but early indications point to a slightly less confusing future for US cannabis policy.

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