In my late teens I inherited my father’s button badge collection from the 80s. Amongst the Devo and ACDC pins was a ‘Legalize It’ badge, resplendent with a big, green marijuana leaf. Back then it seemed like a pipe dream. Today I’m living in Colorado, where any adult can walk into a dispensary, purchase cannabis, and enjoy it in their own home – whether for medicinal or recreational purposes.
Marijuana has been used as a medicine, spiritual aid, leisure substance, and production material for thousands of years, across numerous cultures. It was only after it was outlawed in the US in the 1930s that it gained its taboo status, which was further exaggerated by its categorization as a ‘Schedule I’ drug by the Controlled Substances Act in 1970.
Today, however, there is a slow-but-steady global shift towards legalizing, or at least decriminalizing, cannabis. While some may use these terms interchangeably, there are differences between them.
In general terms, legalization means that the act in question – whether it’s substance use, sex work, or gambling – is not deemed ‘unlawful’. In other words, you can’t be arrested, prosecuted, or face criminal charges for the activity.
However, legalization doesn’t mean you can do what you like, when you like. In fact, legalization allows governments to regulate and monitor these activities. So, for example, minors can’t purchase alcohol, and there are restrictions on where you can smoke cigarettes.
With marijuana, authorities can control who is allowed to grow and distribute it, in what amounts, to whom, under what conditions, and for what purposes. It can also be taxed, just like alcohol and tobacco.
Legalization becomes complicated in the US, as cannabis can be legalized at a state level, while federal law does not recognize this legislation.
Unlike legalization, decriminalization means that an activity is still illegal, but enforcement and penalties are not as severe. Police may ‘turn a blind eye’ to certain behaviors, and those found contravening the law typically face fines or civil charges instead of jail time and a criminal record.
In terms of marijuana, this typically means that governments will allow citizens to possess a small amount of weed and use it privately, but the mass production, transportation, and sale of cannabis is unlawful.
However, governments cannot regulate decriminalized activity: they can’t tax it, or monitor the industry’s producers and consumers. This is where the decriminalization of marijuana is open to certain abuses – drug cartels monopolizing the market, for instance.
Pros and Cons
As mentioned, decriminalization lends itself to potential exploitation. But it’s often seen as a promising ‘first step’ towards legalization, and can have substantial benefits – even to those who do not use marijuana. Decriminalizing weed in the US, for instance, will reduce the number of nonviolent criminals sent to prison on drug charges, reducing the already sizeable cost of incarceration to taxpayers.
Legalization, then, seems to be the Holy Grail for marijuana activists. And while we certainly advocate its many uses and benefits, there are potential draw-backs.
In a capitalist economy, could weed become the ‘new tobacco’? Wholesale legalization could see cannabis become corporatized, with certain communities facing economic exclusion from this lucrative industry.
At the end of the day, global efforts to legalize or decriminalize cannabis should keep these issues in mind, and ensure that proposed policies benefit and empower everyone in the green community.
This post was originally published on February 8, 2016, it was updated on March 15, 2017.