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Decriminalization vs Legalization of Drugs: What It Means for States in 2020-2021

drug decriminalization meaning

The recent 2020 election has sparked a rise in conversations about the legalization and decriminalization of drugs. In the last decade, marijuana has been legalized across several states. Now, the Biden-Harris administration is seeking to decriminalize marijuana across the entire U.S. And, as of November 3rd, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize all illegal drugs. Washington D.C. also voted to decriminalize the use of psychedelic mushrooms in the region.

What does this all mean for our country? How will decriminalization efforts impact the ongoing drug epidemic, and how will it impact those struggling with addiction?

Before we answer these questions, it’s important to understand what legalization and decriminalization actually entail. Many of you are wondering, do they mean the same thing?

What is Legalization?

Legalization is the act of a substance becoming permissible by law. In other words, it means that a once-banned substance is no longer illegal. People can use the substance without worry of being convicted or fined. However, there may be some restrictions set forth with the legalization of a drug, in efforts to keep users safe. For example, law may require you to be a certain age to use the drug. Government may also limit the amount that a person may carry or possess. In addition, suppliers (such as retail stores) may need licensure in order to sell the substance, like we’ve seen with cannabis.

What is Decriminalization?

Decriminalization is the act of removing any criminal sanctions against a certain drug, including its use or possession under a specified amount. A decriminalized drug is still illegal, but the punishment for it is much less harsh. For example, those found in possession of the drug (in a small amount) would not be incarcerated. Instead, they may be reproached with a civil fine, drug education, or drug treatment. Meanwhile, the production, dealing, and sales of decriminalized drugs is still prosecutable by law.

What is the Difference Between Decriminalization vs. Legalization?

Decriminalization is not synonymous with legalization. Legalization means that a once-banned drug is made legal, under federal or state law. Decriminalization means that a once-banned drug is still prohibited by law, but the legal system will no longer prosecute or criminalize a person for carrying under a certain amount. 

Decriminalization ensures that drugs remain federally-controlled and regulated. It also can promote a clearer path to professional drug treatment, for those struggling with substance abuse. However, this is up for some debate. While decriminalization reinforces the importance of drug treatment, it may lead more people to use drugs, without fear of harsh punishment.

What Decriminalization and Legalization Mean for the U.S. Right Now

There is much debate around the legalization and decriminalization of drugs like marijuana, mushrooms, and heroin. Most officials are in agreement that the legalization of certain drugs will amplify the United States’ current drug problem, as legalization means people could use drugs more freely, and in turn suffer the dangerous consequences. However, there are professionals on both ends of the decriminalization debate—some against it, some supporting it.

Some people believe that the decriminalization of drugs will make America’s drug epidemic worse. Without harsh punishment as consequence, won’t more people use drugs? And, in turn, won’t more people become addicted to drugs? 

The belief behind decriminalization, according to the Biden administration, is that “no one should be imprisoned for the use of illegal drugs alone.” Instead, federal courts will refer drug-using individuals to drug courts, so that they can receive the proper treatment to address their substance use disorder. Biden’s goal is to encourage this at the national level, so that all states can help addicted individuals get the help and support that they deserve. It is not designed to encourage more drug use.

We previously answered the question, “Should drug addicts go to jail?” on our blog. And our answer remains the same. Drug addiction is a chronic disease—and it should be treated as such. Professional drug treatment and therapy, supplemented by efforts like job training and prevention programs, is by far the best course of action for non-violent individuals battling a substance use disorder. While law enforcement strategies are important to curtail drug trafficking and stop the illegal production of drugs, those battling addiction need professional treatment to reduce dependency. 

Research supports this. According to a study by Pew Charitable Trusts, imprisonment for drug offenders does not correlate with lower rates of drug abuse, drug arrests, or drug overdoses in communities. A study from the National Research Council also shows that drug sentencing has few, if any, deterrent effects. 

When Oregon decided to get rid of drug punishments, and when the new President and Vice President talked of decriminalization, it was not with intent to increase the rate of drug abuse. It was because they recognized that something has to change. The current methods of imprisoning minor drug offenders is not effective in tackling the drug epidemic. In order to tackle the drug overdose and addiction problem in the U.S., we need to highlight professional treatment. Decriminalization is therefore being explored. The decriminalization law enacted in Oregon, for example, now gives minor drug offenders – those caught in possession of small, “personal use” amounts of a drug – a pathway into treatment. Offenders are delivered a fine and entered into a drug recovery program, rather than a jail cell. Of course, anyone caught dealing drugs will still be prosecuted, to prevent the spread of drugs.

Drug addiction already has a stigma attached to it. People are scared to get help, out of fear of what others might think. They will continue using drugs just to feel “better” or “normal.” This is part of the addiction cycle. The body becomes dependent on drugs to function normally. Drug addicts are not bad people; they are afflicted by a chronic mental health disease. Therefore, professional treatment is an important step in ensuring they get the help they need to break the cycle of addiction.To learn more about the importance of professional drug treatment, and the benefits it can yield to those in recovery, please do not hesitate to reach out. Turnbridge is a nationally recognized drug rehab center with programs for young men and women battling substance addiction. Call 877-581-1793 to learn more.