Do You Know the Difference Between Legalization & Decriminalization?

It’s been almost a year since Canada’s historical move to end its prohibition of cannabis, making it the first G7 nation to federally legalise cannabis for medicinal and adult recreational use. Now there’s a new conversation brewing, hot on the heels of cannabis legalisation, the decriminalization of psychedelic mushrooms. 

Yet, so often, I see the terms decriminalisation and legalisation incorrectly used interchangeably. It’s understandable now more than ever that people would be confused, it seems like every other day something is being legalised somewhere!

So what is the difference?


There’s a long and a short answer to this question. First, the short - here’s a quick definition of the terms we’ll use in this article:

Legalization: Lifting of all legal prohibitions against the possession and personal use of cannabis. Allowing the government to regulate the production and distribution along with collection taxes.

Decriminalized: Removal of criminal penalties imposed on personal possession and consumption of cannabis. The production and distribution of cannabis however remains illegal.

The long answer revolves around the pros and cons of legalised and decriminalised systems.


In Canada, a plethora of cannabis dispensaries operated around the country prior to legalisation, when cannabis was in fact 100% illegal for recreational use. It was, however, medically legal with an occasionally lax approach to prescriptions. In some cities, the best way to describe it would be to say that cannabis consumption was tolerated.

Believe it or not, the effect federal legalisation has had on access to cannabis has been the opposite of what you might expect. There are now fewer operational dispensaries and a long list of stringent rules that producers and retailers must adhered to, and staff are prohibited from making suggestions on types of products patrons might use for their requirements. Overall cannabis is now somewhat harder to access and definitely more difficult to understand in legal dispensaries. 

Federally illegal cannabis

In the US cannabis is federally illegal, but this hasn’t stopped some states from implementing their own laws on cannabis use. In some states, such as California, cannabis has been legalized both medically and recreationally, in others only medically, and in some, New York being the most notable and recent example, it has simply been decriminalized

While there is a hubbub of excitement around the veil of cannabis prohibition finally being lifted, the laws can be tricky to navigate when they’re in various states of transition, both in North America and around the world. 

Currently, the federal status of cannabis in the US could still land you in jail if you were to be pursued by the feds, regardless of whether it is legal in your state or not.  


By now, most people have cottoned on that the so called ‘war on drugs’ has been a miserable failure, serving only as a demolition vehicle to the most marginalised groups in our society.

There is enough reason to celebrate any step towards the recognition of this fact, and whether it’s pursuing decriminalisation of psilocybin mushrooms in Canada, or the state wide decriminalisation of cannabis in New York, we’re on board. 

Perhaps the greatest benefit of decriminalisation is that it lifts the burden on law enforcement, allowing them to ignore petty possession crimes like your grandmas edible stash for her arthritis, and focus on more serious, violent and organised criminal syndicates.

In fact, some people actually consider decriminalisation to be a better option than full legalisation. Take cannabis for example; by way of legalisation, the government takes complete control, regulating the production and distribution of the product. It stands to reason that when implementing mass reform on a system that has to date been operating independently, you’re bound to wrinkle a few feathers, indeed this has been the case in Canada. 

At the same time, decriminalization is a halfway solution that only relaxes the criminal penalties around personal consumption, while still imposing restrictions on growing and selling the product. The resulting ambiguity of the laws often make way for the criminals to run the black markets, while scaring the civilian population from operating freely. 

Legalization, with all its flaws, is arguably the safer option for the community as a whole. There are several added benefits, which include the economic returns by way of taxes, the reassessment of law enforcement priorities, and the vacating of cannabis related offences.

Regardless of which side of the fence you may find yourself on, legalization or decriminalization, people the world over are invariably opening their eyes to the healing potential of the cannabis plant.

The truth is, there may never ever be a perfect system to produce, distribute and regulate a plant so perfect as cannabis.