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What's the Difference Between Drug Decriminalization and Drug Legalization?

Some officials believe decriminalization only makes the drug problem worse, and that without harsh penalties, more people will use drugs recreationally and eventually become full blown addicts.

This story originally appeared on The Fresh Toast

There is a lot of buzz right now on drug decriminalization. Not only did Oregon recently become the first state to decriminalize the possession of all illegal substances, but President-elect Joe Biden and VP-elect Kamala Harris have made it their mission to do this at the national level with marijuana.

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Some Americans believe this means the new administration plans to legalize the leaf in a manner similar to alcohol. Only they would be dead wrong. There are some subtle differences between decriminalization and legalization. What are they? The devil is in the details. 

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When Oregon voters approved a measure to decriminalize the possession of heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and other hard drugs, they weren’t doing it so that people could get their hands on this stuff easier. It was a stab at decades of failed drug war policies, dictating that people caught holding this stuff should rot in jail. However, the new decriminalization law strips away these old school law enforcement practices, making it so that minor drug offenders (those caught in possession of small amounts of these substances) are simply issued a fine and entered into a drug recovery program rather than being thrown to the wolves of criminal justice.

However, there is a preconceived notion about what Oregon is preparing to do. Some believe the state is about to launch a fully legal drug market, making every dangerous substance is more accessible to addicts and first-time users. But that’s not what is happening. Not even close. There’s not going to be a legal system in place where a person can just walk into their local Heroin Store and buy whatever he or she wants. The new law simply prevents drug users from going to jail. Anyone busted for dealing drugs of any kind will still suffer the same prosecutorial wrath.

That’s decriminalization.

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When a drug is legalized, like marijuana has been done in a slew of states, the law typically opens up a taxed and regulated market in which the substance can be manufactured and sold to adults 21 and older. Legalization is the guy who walks into a liquor store and walks out with a six-pack of beer. It’s the lady who enters a cannabis dispensary and buys an ounce of Blue Dream. Sure, there are often possession limits—you can’t just buy a pound of pot—but as long as a person doesn’t exceed the legal limit, there is never any risk of law enforcement hassles. There are no drug rehabilitation classes, no fines, and definitely no jail. Again, as long as the law is obeyed.

What the upcoming Biden administration is looking to do with marijuana is decriminalize it nationwide. Although we have yet to see any details of the plan, it will likely serve to eliminate the criminal penalties for those caught in possession of small amounts of weed and ensure that none of these people are being incarcerated. It will probably take it a step further by allowing those with minor pot convictions to have their criminal records expunged.

The measure would not legalize marijuana at the federal level—there wouldn’t be a retail system in place—nor would it apply to any other drug. That means if a person gets caught with small amounts of heroin, chances are they are going to be arrested and charged with a felony. Unless they are caught in Oregon.

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Biden, who is against legalization and used to believe that pot was a gateway drug, now thinks the country should give consumers the benefit of the doubt. Only he wants them to continue answering to their indiscretions to some degree, like attending mandatory drug rehab if they are caught. 

“I don’t believe anybody should be going to jail for drug use. They should be going into mandatory rehabilitation,” Biden said earlier this year. “We should be building rehab centers to have these people housed.” 

Some officials believe decriminalization only makes the drug problem worse, and that without harsh penalties, more people will use drugs recreationally and eventually become full blown addicts. But that hasn’t been the case in places that have implemented this policy. Portugal decriminalized the possession of all illegal drugs in 2001, and the country still isn’t having the problems it once had. Instead, HIV-infections and drug-related deaths are down, and drug use has not suffered an increase. In fact, Portugal’s drug-use rates are well below the European average.