Fifteen states have decriminalized marijuana but not legalized it. In these states, possession of small amounts of pot no longer carries jail or prison time but can continue to carry a fine, and possession of larger amounts, repeat offenses, and sales or trafficking can still result in harsher sentences.
Decriminalization laws vary from state to state. Whether a small amount of pot means 10 or 100 grams depends on the state’s laws. (In comparison, a marijuana joint weighs about half a gram.)
Supporters of decriminalization often point to Portugal as evidence of the policy’s success. A 2009 Cato Institute report found that more people with drug use disorders sought treatment services because the country decriminalized all drugs and, as a result, removed the fear of arrest.
Some opponents of legalization favor decriminalization as a step to peeling back America’s harsh drug and criminal justice policies. They see “tough on crime” policies as too punitive and costly, but they don’t want to resort to full legalization, which they fear would make pot too accessible in the US and allow big corporations to irresponsibly sell and market the drug.
The concern for legalization advocates is that decriminalization keeps the ban on selling marijuana, which means users wouldn’t have a legal source for the drug, and criminal organizations would therefore continue having a source of revenue that they can use for violent operations around the world.
Still, the debate between legalization supporters and opponents about whether decriminalization goes far enough shows that the overall drug policy debate isn’t about whether America’s punitive laws should change, but rather how far change should go.