What Happens When You Decriminalize Marijuana

No presidential candidate has fully supported the idea of legalizing marijuana at a federal level, but a few have played with the idea of decriminalizing marijuana. So what are the benefits of decriminalization?

"Decriminalization does not address the need to eliminate the unregulated and over-capitalized black market," Jon Gettman, an associate professor in criminal justice at Shenandoah University, told ATTN:. Gettman said that there are social and economic consequences to black markets, and decriminalization would only change marijuana crimes to something you might be fined for, instead of something that you'd get arrested for.

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But it would save money.

Since people likely wouldn't be arrested and thrown in prison for marijuana crimes, it would save the country quite a bit of money. A 2013 report from the ACLU found it cost the United States around $3.6 billion to enforce marijuana laws in 2010 alone, but it might have been as high as $6 billion, if some external factors are included. The report also points out that minorities are disproportionately arrested for marijuana crimes, despite not using the substance more than white citizens.

Gettman said that determining the exact cost can be difficult because there are so many costs associated with any arrest and prosecution. He said that the basic costs include "taking someone into custody, taking them to the police station, filing an arrest report, holding the person until then can be arraigned and then until they make bail, transferring the information for the case to the prosecutor, scheduling court time, taking the time to make a plea agreement, and so on."

What is decriminalization?

That being said, there are different ideas of what decriminalization is, in general.

"In California and Massachusetts, for example, marijuana possession is a civil offense, like a traffic infraction," Gettman said. "But in many states where marijuana is considered decriminalized, the offense is still a criminal offense, a misdemeanor crime, in which a police officer issues a court summons in lieu of making an arrest and the violation can be remedied through a guilty plea and payment of a fine." It's still a criminal infraction, so it could still go on your record (depending on the state).

Decriminalization is better than having people spend years in prison for simply possessing marijuana, but it's not an ideal solution for many marijuana advocates. Gettman said that politicians should consider fully legalizing marijuana on a national level to save taxpayer money and prevent people from having to go into the criminal justice system for a victimless crime. Legalization would also benefit the medical marijuana system.

There's no evidence that decriminalization leads to more marijuana use.

Some worry marijuana legalization/decriminalization would mean an increase in how many people are ingesting the substance, but many studies have found little or no increase in the use of marijuana in places around the country that have decriminalized it. If Big Tobacco decides to enter the marijuana market, however, a massive marketing campaign created by Marlboro, for example, if/when the drug is legalized might change that to a degree, but marijuana use tends to be more casual and sporadic than tobacco or alcohol use.

Though candidates are increasingly talking about marijuana legalization/decriminalization, it's still going to be a while before any national changes occur.

"It has taken over 40 years just to achieve the level of decriminalization that exists today," Gettman said. However, the rate at which marijuana laws are changing is exponentially increasing. Gettman believes it's more likely states will decriminalize before a national policy comes. As for legalization, Gettman has hope. "As more and more states legalize marijuana, Congress will consider national legalization policy and the establishment of a national regulatory framework," he said. "I believe this will either happen before the presidential election of 2024 or be a major issue in that election."

Marijuana decriminalization at a federal level would be a major step forward in ending mass incarceration and saving taxpayer money that could be spent elsewhere. Legalization, as Gettman explained, would be a further step that would take these gains to a higher level and legitimize the medical marijuana system. It took many of us 40 years to realize that having a plant is not a reason to go to prison, and it will probably be a few more before we realize it's not even worth a fine.