The landscape of drug decriminalization in the United States has been evolving, particularly gaining attention after Oregon took a significant step by decriminalizing all drugs in 2020.
As broader drug decriminalization efforts become a topic of discussion, it’s insightful to reflect on the five decades of marijuana decriminalization for lessons on effects and implementation.
The Shafer Commission & Marijuana Decriminalization
In 1972, the Shafer Commission advocated for a “social control policy” discouraging marijuana use but emphasized that criminal law was too severe for personal possession.
Oregon became the pioneer in implementing the commission’s recommendations, and the decriminalization of weed took place in 1973. Over the next five years, ten more states, including Alaska, California, and New York, followed suit. President Jimmy Carter even urged Congress to consider marijuana decriminalization in 1977.
Decriminalization typically entails lenient measures for first-time possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal use, such as no arrest, imprisonment, or criminal record. In most decriminalized states, these offenses are equated with minor traffic violations.
However, it should also be noted that decriminalization, partial decriminalization, and legalization vary in terms of arrest, prison sentences, and criminal records for possession offenses. Decriminalization may not necessarily mean a reduction in criminal justice encounters for marijuana users.
The Complexities of Decriminalization Laws
While statistics indicate that over 75% of Americans now live in states with some form of decriminalization or legalization, the devil is in the details. Not all decriminalization initiatives are created equal, and the impact of these reforms can vary significantly.
- Fines: Disparities and Unintended ConsequencesThe fines associated with marijuana possession vary widely. In North Dakota, a partially decriminalized state, the maximum penalty for less than 0.5 ounces of marijuana is a hefty $1,000, while in Minnesota, the neighboring state, a similar offense incurs only a $250 fine. Moreover, within states, cities may enforce different fines for the same offense.
- Weed Decriminalized for Whom? Exceptions and ConsequencesDecriminalization often comes with exceptions, excluding those with criminal records. Laws may stipulate decriminalization only for first or second-time offenses, with steeper fines and potential imprisonment for subsequent offenses. Probationers or parolees may still risk violations for marijuana use, leading to dire consequences.
- Enforcement Loopholes: The Gap Between Law and PracticeLoopholes in enforcement can undermine the spirit of pot decriminalization. New York, for instance, initially decriminalized possession of cannabis in 1977 but left a loophole that allowed arrests for public view possession. Law enforcement exploited this, leading to unlawful arrests. Only in 2019 did the state pass legislation to close this loophole.
- Civil or Criminal InfractionDecriminalization may still treat marijuana possession as a criminal offense in some jurisdictions, leaving individuals with a formal criminal record. While a first-time offense may not result in jail time, the downstream consequences of a criminal record can be substantial.
Marijuana Arrests in the 21st Century
While marijuana arrests have significantly declined in states that legalized cannabis, decriminalized weed states experienced more modest reductions. In 2018, states that legalized cannabis saw possession arrest rates drop to 25 per 100,000, down from 174 in 2010.
In decriminalized states, the decline was only about one-third, from 301 to 216 per 100,000 residents. The promise of decriminalized weed meaning reform faces challenges in keeping pace with overall arrests in the U.S.
States Where Weed is Decriminalized
Several states in the United States have opted to become weed decriminalized states, reflecting a significant change in drug policies.
Among these states are Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia.
The Path Forward
So, is weed federally decriminalized? Well, not exactly! Nevertheless, in the last 30 years, public support for War on Drugs policies has notably decreased. Nowadays, more than half of Americans endorse the reclassification of drug offenses, favoring a shift from felonies to civil offenses.
While state-level decriminalization and legalization efforts are steps in the right direction, federal action is crucial to create a unified approach, ensuring that all Americans benefit equally from these reforms and avoid the ongoing risks of arrest and imprisonment for cannabis offenses.