Cennamology Chief Editor
Marijuana policy reform has recently become a popular topic that policymakers on the local, state, and national levels have pursued, and state laws and policies regarding marijuana are rapidly changing.
In 2014, my home state of Maryland decriminalized marijuana. Naturally, this led to the many of my fellow college students become very excited. However, I had to be the buzzkill (pun totally intended) when I told them that marijuana was still illegal in Maryland. The key difference was that penalties had been reduced.
With several states having legalized marijuana in the past few years, including Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and the District of Columbia, with even more considering decriminalization, it is important that everyone knows the important differences between the two policies.
The elimination of penalties is the feature that is common to most legalization laws. However, there are important differences in each jurisdiction where the drug has been legalized. For example, in the District of Columbia, there are no dispensaries. Instead, you have to grow your own and you can only grow up to six plants on your property. Even if you grow your own, it is still illegal to sell it to another person. It is also still illegal to smoke marijuana in any public space, like in the park or on the street. Also, possessing over two ounces of marijuana at one time is illegal.
In Colorado, possession of up to one ounce carries no penalties, but possession of more than one ounce but less than two ounces is classified as a class two petty offense with the maximum penalty of a $100 fine (Co. Rev. Stat. Ann. Section 18-18-406(1)). Possession between two and six ounces can land the offender three months to one year in prison or a fine between $250 and $1000 (Co. Rev. Stat. Ann. Section 18-18-406(4)(a)(I)). Penalties increase when offenders are caught possessing six to twelve ounces and again for over twelve ounces.
Even though there are only four jurisdictions to have legalized marijuana, more are expected to be added to the list by 2017. Just like the case has been for the four states to have legalized the drug so far, legalization of recreational marijuana is unlikely to look exactly the same in any two jurisdictions. The amount you can possess legally, the number of plants you can grow on your property, and the places where you are allowed to smoke will all vary from state to state.
Despite what many of my fellow Marylanders have mistakenly believed, marijuana decriminalization is not the same thing as marijuana legalization. When marijuana is decriminalized, it is still illegal to cultivate marijuana plants, sell marijuana, or possess marijuana. What decriminalization means is that incarceration is not one of penalties for the use or possession of marijuana for first time offenders. Even though incarceration is not one of the sanctions, there are other ones that can be applied including a ticket, mandatory drug counseling and education, or the loss of a driver’s license. However, some states may not have strictly enforced penalties for first time offenders. The penalties that accompany decriminalization policies usually only apply to small amounts, the ceiling of which varies by state. There are twenty states, including Maryland, that have a system of marijuana decriminalization in place, with 11 of them having passed these laws since 2001.
Both of these types of marijuana policies have their own strengths and weaknesses. One shared weakness is the sheer variation of the laws that are classified under each of these policies, as each state has different laws pertaining to each of these policies. Even among the four jurisdictions that have legalized marijuana, there are very important differences in each of the laws. Therefore, the terms “legalized marijuana,” and "decriminalized marijuana" are not only distinct from one another, but also each term does not mean the same thing in one jurisdiction as it does in another. To some federalist-minded individuals, this decentralization of marijuana policies can be seen as a strength in the laws, but to others it can lead to nationwide confusion as to what legalization and decriminalization of marijuana entails.
The are a number of benefits of a legalization policy that are leading to more states pursuing that route. One is that tax revenue obtained from the legal sales of marijuana can later be used to balance state budgets. Another is reduced incarceration rates, as well as a reduced racial disparity in these rates, as African Americans are arrested and incarcerated for marijuana offenses at a higher rate than whites are (Blankenship et al, 2005). Another important strength is that legalization takes power away from illicit drug dealers, and provides the state with an avenue to give it a greater ability to regulate marijuana and ensure that it is being used safely. Legal sales of the drug would also create job and reduce unemployment, as a new legal industry brings with it a number of employment opportunities, including dispensary operators, growers and seed manufacturers, regulators, dispensary security guards, lab technicians, and many other jobs (Cox, 2011).
However, these strengths are accompanied by some weaknesses as well. Many contend that legalization of marijuana sends the message to children that it is safe to use, and could therefore increase use by underage persons. Some are also skeptical of the economic benefits that marijuana legalization would bring, saying that the benefits will be disproportionately earned by “white men poised to run big marijuana businesses, dreaming of cashing in big. Big money, big businesses selling weed, after 40 years of locking up impoverished black kids for selling weed. Their families and future destroyed. Now white men are planning on getting rich doing precisely the same thing."
This quote from activist Michelle Alexander is perhaps the strongest weakness of marijuana legalization. Alexander, a supporter of legalization, contends that small minority-owned businesses will not be the ones selling marijuana. Instead, big businesses owned by white billionaires will be the ones who are actually making the money, doing nothing to close the wealth gap or atone for the years of locking up impoverished African American youth for non-violent drug offenses. This poses major equity issues, because even though African Americans have been disproportionately incarcerated for selling marijuana, it is rich white men who will disproportionately reap the benefits of selling marijuana.
If Alexander’s suspicion turns out to be correct, it would constitute a violation of equity and morality that would damage the economic prospects of legalization policy. This does not mean that policy should not be pursued, but it does mean that we need to remember that legalization would not necessarily be a panacea for inner-city, majority-minority communities who have been torn apart because of strict drug laws. This is especially important to remember in Baltimore, the new center of the national discussion on race relations. The problems that led to the riots have to focus on more than just arrests and drug policies. And we have to consider the very real possibility that legalization would not be as helpful to the job prospects of the residents of these communities as we think they might.
A major weakness of decriminalization policies is that the media attention that comes after a state decriminalizes marijuana causes many in the state to mistakenly believe that the drug is legal. A reason decriminalization is pursued by policymakers is that it is frequently seen as a suitable compromise between those who want legalization and those who do not. Decriminalization is also an effective incremental bridge between strict marijuana enforcement laws and legalization. However, decriminalization should be just that - an important step on the incrementalist path to sensible drug laws. It should not be a long-term policy.
Another marijuana policy, the legalization of medical marijuana, has been pursued by many but has been a failure in eleven states. This is because these states have legalized medical marijuana without providing effective ways for patients to access it, which makes it unnecessarily difficult for those with seizures, cancer, etc. to get this particular type of medicine.
After examining all the strengths and weaknesses of each policy, I believe that legalization is the most effective policy because it would lead to the greatest reductions in America’s world-record prison population, racial disparities in incarceration rates, illicit drug use, and unemployment rates. While decriminalization is a strong alternative that can be effective political compromises, this route lacks the ambition and the strength necessary to bring about the changes needed to solve the problems brought about by restrictive marijuana policies.