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Decriminalisation VS Legalisation: What’s the Difference?

While Canada legalised both recreational and medical cannabis back in 2018, cannabis legislation varies across the US from state to state – with some states decriminalising, some legalising and some choosing to keep cannabis illegal. And while many Americans, 80% according to the National Geographic, support the legalisation of medical cannabis, and about 60% support the legalisation of recreational cannabis, some advocates are still calling for the decriminalisation of cannabis rather than legalisation.

But aren’t decriminalisation and legalisation laws the same thing? Not exactly. In this article we break down the differences between legalisation and decriminalisation and why people are advocating so passionately in favour of each option.

The Fundamental Differences

Decriminalisation means that the use of recreational cannabis would still be illegal but essentially police would be told to turn a blind eye to people in the possession of and using small amounts of cannabis, who may be fined a small sum but would not typically face prison time. If recreational cannabis was decriminalised, then it’s likely that only traffickers and dealers would face prosecution and prison time, which is why many argue for decriminalisation only. Put simply, decriminalisation essentially means that the penalties enforced upon those found to be personally using cannabis are lessened.

Legalisation, on the other hand, would mean that personal recreational use of cannabis would be completely allowed, and the government would be able to regulate and tax cannabis, much like with alcohol and the use of prescription drugs.

Although those arguing for decriminalisation often cite the continued prosecution of traffickers and dealers as the reasoning behind their stance, those looking to legalise can also use the argument that legalisation will lessen organised crime when putting their case forward. Indeed, when arguing that recreational cannabis should be legalised in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau posited that legalising cannabis in the country would take ‘revenue out of the pockets of criminals and put it into a system where we can both monitor, tax it and ensure that we are supporting people who are facing challenges related or unrelated to drug use’.

Debates around the issue

For politicians in the US, supporting decriminalisation could be a wise move, as they could be seen to be against the organised crime surrounding the drug whilst remaining relatively lenient towards personal use. Simultaneously, through taking the decriminalisation stance, they would avoid attaching themselves to a full endorsement of cannabis, which could anger those who protest the health risks of the drug.

On the other side of the issue, those in favour of full legalisation argue that the health risks of alcohol and prescription drugs like opioids are equal to, if not more serious than, the risks associated with using cannabis, yet these substances are fully legal and regulated. Indeed, with the current ‘opioid crisis’ in the US meaning that over 130 people die after overdosing on opioids in both prescription and illegal forms every day, this argument should not be dismissed or taken lightly.

What about in the UK?

A 2016 poll by YouGov showed that almost 50% of the UK public are in favour of cannabis’ recreational use, while an even larger proportion of the population (three quarters) support medical cannabis use, hinting at the UK’s population’s relative warmth towards recreational and medical decriminalisation and legalisation.

Those in parliament may even be warming up to the idea of legalisation too, as after a group of MPs visited Canada following their legalisation of cannabis, Labour MP David Lammy was quoted as saying: ‘I want the market legalised, regulated and taken away from crime gangs’. Following this remark, Jeff Smith, another MP and co-founder of the Labour Campaign for Drug Policy Reform stated that: “There would be huge benefits if we legalised and regulated cannabis in the same way we do alcohol. We’d stop wasting police time and resources by criminalising people unnecessarily”.

So, with medical cannabis use already legalised in the UK as of October 2018, perhaps the UK will consider the decriminalisation or legalisation of cannabis in years to come, particularly as talk of the matter is already on MPs’ lips as general discussion of the issue becomes ever more normalised throughout the country.

For more in depth information on medical cannabis, UK policy and the conditions medical cannabis can treat, we recommend accessing our in depth modules available on our website. Here, you can find up to date information on cannabis based medicinal products and how best to prescribe them. You can also explore our news section and evidence base for the latest information on this ever-changing area of research.

We urge anyone considering the use of medical cannabis products to consult with a trained medical professional prior to beginning use.

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