Marijuana Decriminalization: A Long, Sordid History

By WeedWeek Jul 15, 2020

For decades in the United States, marijuana possession has been treated as a criminal offence, contributing to the country’s world-leading incarceration rate, and foisting unfair hardships on families of the accused as well as society at large. All too often, the punishment doesn’t match the crime, since possession of only a few grams can lead to criminal charges, hefty fines and on occasion lengthy prison sentences.  However, the legal climate in the United States is changing, slowly but surely. States and cities continue to pass marijuana decriminalization laws. While it’s only the first step, decriminalizing weed is an important one for every state to consider.

What Is Marijuana Decriminalization?   

Marijuana decriminalization refers to the removal of criminal prosecutions for the possession of marijuana, and sometimes acts relating to the drug such as growing or trafficking. Decriminalization means that cannabis is still considered an illegal substance, however, association with it carries lesser penalties. For example, an offense that may have previously led to jail time and permanent criminal records, instead leads to drug education, treatment, or no penalty at all.  

Marijuana Decriminalization Vs Legalization

While similar, there are some important differences between decriminalization versus legalization of marijuana. As mentioned above, decriminalization involves removing criminal penalties which can be harsh and remain on a person’s permanent record, affecting their ability to function in society. For example, a criminal record can make it harder to find housing, find a job or get a student loan.  

Legalization removes more legal barriers and prohibitions and often leads to the creation of a regulated industry. In most states where weed is legalized, it is available for purchase in stores, the way cigarettes and alcohol currently are. As with those products, when marijuana is legal there are typically restrictions based on factors such as age. 

Why Decriminalize Marijuana?   

Advocates can cite many reasons to decriminalize marijuana. One of the most important is to reduce the number of people — disproportionately Black and brown people — whose prospects are dampened on account of a victimless crime. 

The United States locks up more people per capita than any other nation on the planet, with 2020 figures coming in at over 2 million people currently incarcerated. While relatively few Americans serve long sentences for minor pot offenses, some do. For a far larger number of people cannabis is an entry point to the criminal justice system, which, even when the penalty is minor, can have severe consequences for the rest of their lives. 

There are many other arguments to decriminalize marijuana, one of which is summed up nicely by a Kermit the Frog meme. The Kermit who takes a swig from a Jack Daniels bottle winds up puking in the toilet and passes out on the sidewalk. The Kermit taking a toke, on the other hand, munches on some pizza and watches TV at home. In other words: weed tends to be more “chill”, and can therefore be more safe than alcohol. 

In one year alone, alcohol-fuelled violence was the cause of close to 250,000 deaths around the world, while experts have concluded there’s no clear link between cannabis use and violence. It’s also virtually impossible to die from an overdose of cannabis, whereas alcohol poisoning accounts for close to 90,000 deaths each year in the United States. 

In many respects, weed is far less harmful than alcohol. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to make using marijuana a criminal offence when it isn’t really hurting people – particularly in the ways that other substances, legal and not, are. 

The Costs and Consequences Of Prohibition   

The consensus is that intensifying legal and police enforcement of marijuana prohibitions does not reduce total marijuana use in the United States. Instead, it’s major impact can be seen as leading to mass incarceration, affecting Black people and people of color disproportionately. 

Black people are drastically overrepresented in marijuana arrests, accounting for 26% of all possession arrests in 2002 while comprising only around 13% of the population. Between 2001 and 2010, Black people were 3.73 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana.

The human costs of prohibition are steep, and tragic, even for those who are not sent behind bars for prolonged periods of time. Not only can parents be separated from their children and families. Criminalization can impose extraordinary financial and emotional burdens on offenders loved ones as well.. These costs are thrust onto people who have not been charged with any crime – in other words, they are innocent. And yet, these costs can prove ruinous. Plus, when people are charged with a criminal conviction, it becomes far more difficult for that person to obtain a job, thus accentuating an already tenuous financial outlook for many people.

The financial costs of marijuana criminalization are quite steep. Arresting and prosecuting people costs billions of taxpayer dollars every year. Further, it’s estimated to cost at least around $22,000 to hold one person in the federal prison system for a year. 

Marijuana Laws In The United States   

At a federal level in the United States, marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it is highly risky and carries no recognized medical benefits. However, at a state level, the picture is quite different. States have jurisdiction to enact laws as they feel is appropriate. Certain states have taken steps to legalize it, based on the rules of each individual state. In total, 36 states have legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Of these, 11 have legalized weed for recreational purposes, including California, Colorado, and Washington. 

States With Marijuana Decriminalization Laws   

The following are a sampling of the states that have decriminalization laws in place, as of July 2020

  • Connecticut: Recreational use is decriminalized, meaning possessing less than half an ounce will only result in a civil penalty and/or a fine. 
  • Delaware: Recreational use is illegal; however possession of up to an ounce has been partly decriminalized, resulting only in a civil penalty and a fine of up to $500. However, for possession of over an ounce, sentencing gets harsher: up to three months of incarceration. 
  • Maryland: Recreational use of marijuana has been decriminalized, while medical use is legal. For possession of up to 10 grams, penalties are capped at a civil offense and a fine of up to $100. Over 10 grams results in a misdemeanor, which can result in jail time for a year and a $1,000 fine. 
  • Minnesota: Medical has been legalized, whereas recreational use has been decriminalized. Being caught with less than 42.5 grams may result in drug education and a fine of as much as $200.
  • Mississippi: Only CBD is legalized for medical use, and recreational use has been decriminalized. Possession of under 30 grams results in a fine of $250. Felony charges can come with repeat offences, however. 
  • Nebraska: Medical use is still illegal, however recreational use has been decriminalized. Possessing one ounce may result only in a small fine and a citation. Felony charges may result for repeat offences or higher amounts.

History Of Decriminalization   

In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act into law, and cannabis was officially listed as a Schedule 1 drug. A year later, he declared the beginning of the “War on Drugs”, putting policies in place that would see the increase of mandatory prison sentencing and other harsher penalties for drug related crimes. This so-called war had the effect of unfairly targeting Black people and other minority groups. 

Later that same decade, the decriminalization of marijuana kicked off. From 1973 to 1977, 11 states passed legislation to decriminalize marijuana-related crimes, while other initiatives were taken to legalize the use of cannabis for medical purposes. In 1978, New Mexico became the first to do this, and by the early 80s, over 30 states passed similar legislation. 


There are many arguments to be made for the decriminalization of marijuana. Not only are harsh punishments ineffective in reducing the amount of weed being consumed, this consumption is less of a problem than many claim it to be. Criminal penalties are steeped in racism and unfair policing, causing far more heartache to innocent people than the drug itself. At the moment, much of the United States is in the process of reforming its marijuana laws More states than ever have embraced decriminalization. It may someday lead to national legalization.