The Differences Between Marijuana Legalization and Marijuana Decriminalization

As marijuana laws change nationwide, buzzwords such as “legalization” and “decriminalization” arise in the national discourse. State and local governments debate legalization and decriminalization, which may lead to confusion in distinguishing the two terms. In the context of manufacturing and selling cannabis products, decriminalization and legalization have vastly different implications. Since states have different standards for the legality of marijuana, it is important to know the difference between decriminalization and legalization to avoid conflict and confusion when examining your state’s marijuana laws.

What is Marijuana Decriminalization?

Decriminalization relaxes the legal punishments for those who are found in possession of a relatively small amount of marijuana. For example, in the state of Florida, a “small amount” is defined as less than 20 grams. 

Marijuana remains a Schedule I substance federally and numerous states throughout the nation still criminalize varying amounts of simple possession. Punishments range across the nation from imprisonment to fines. In Texas, for instance, the penalties for possession of marijuana are determined by weight, spanning from a Class B misdemeanor to a first-degree felony. Possession of marijuana in Texas will most likely result in a misdemeanor, but possessing more than four ounces of marijuana is the threshold at which the penalty reaches a felony level act. 

Historically, states decide whether decriminalization policies work retroactively. Retroactive decriminalization policies can potentially provide a pardon for those with minor drug offenses related to marijuana. Additionally, decriminalizing marijuana is usually a step towards legalization, like the strides towards decriminalization in Mexico in 2021.

What is Marijuana Legalization?

Marijuana legalization is a process by which the substance becomes legal at either the state or federal level. By removing marijuana from criminal scheduling, it removes legal penalties against selling, distributing, and owning marijuana products, resulting in a more regulated marijuana market. Each state sets a specific amount that a person can legally purchase or own, and monitors the sale and manufacture of cannabis products. However, someone who does not follow state regulations (such as being under the age of legal possession or possessing a higher amount than allowed) is still potentially subject to fines or arrest.

Why Does it Vary from State to State?

Currently, cannabis and its products are not legalized or decriminalized on a federal level. Marijuana is still considered a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Drugs that are classified as Schedule I substances hold no medical benefit or use in the eyes of the law. State legislators can decide whether they legalize, criminalize, or decriminalize marijuana for recreational or medical purposes. Last year, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced draft legislation to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. The proposed bill is known as the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act. 


Knowing the difference between legal terms ensures that the marijuana community remains informed and protected. Attorney Chelsie Spencer provides trusted counsel to the marijuana business community, helping its entities navigate various legal matters. She also offers her vast range of expertise to those needing legal help with trademark law, copyright law, and more. Contact Ritter Spencer Cheng today or call us at 214.295.5070 for more information.