Decriminalization is a public health-based approach that imposes penalties designed to discourage marijuana use and encourage treatment when necessary. Under decriminalization, marijuana remains an illegal drug but people who are caught possessing small amounts of marijuana (typically 1 ounce or less) for personal consumption are fined rather than arrested. Marijuana trafficking, distribution, and sale remain subject to serious criminal penalties, as does driving while intoxicated by marijuana.
Partnership to End Addiction supports the decriminalization of marijuana because it more appropriately addresses marijuana use as a public health problem, rather than a crime. Incarcerating people for using marijuana serves neither the individual’s nor the public’s interest. Having a criminal record for marijuana use is damaging to individuals’ livelihoods and life opportunities, particularly for youth. Partnership to End Addiction recommends that possession of marijuana for personal use not result in:
- a criminal arrest, record, or incarceration,
- penalties that affect housing, child custody, education or employment opportunities, or
- enhanced sentencing for other crimes (including probationers and parolees).
Partnership to End Addiction also recognizes that the enforcement of marijuana laws has disproportionately impacted racial minorities. Racial bias is a serious problem that occurs in the enforcement of many laws, indicating that the solution requires more systemic changes. Although decriminalization alone will not eliminate racial bias in law enforcement, it would reduce racial disparities in arrest rates and incarceration for marijuana possession.
Marijuana laws should aim to deter marijuana use and facilitate treatment when needed. There is not yet sufficient evidence to suggest which consequences or penalties are most effective at deterring use and facilitating treatment. In designing and evaluating the effectiveness of a system of penalties for marijuana possession, states should consider the following recommendations:
- Penalties for marijuana possession should discourage marijuana use and encourage treatment when necessary, for example, a fine with graduated consequences for repeat violations that could be mitigated by entering treatment.
- Multiple violations for marijuana possession or public intoxication may indicate that the individual has a marijuana use disorder and should trigger a health-based intervention (e.g., evaluation by an addiction treatment professional, mandatory treatment), and possibly enhanced penalties (e.g., electronic monitoring, random drug testing, modified house arrest or brief lock-up) that are effective at motivating people to complete treatment. For adolescents in particular, connection to treatment is important, as addressing substance problems early through treatment prevents further use and adverse consequences.
- Public use of marijuana should be strongly deterred with penalties, but should also be decriminalized.
For individuals charged with more serious marijuana crimes (e.g., distribution), courts should explore the use of alternative sentencing programs such as drug courts and evaluate their effectiveness in reducing substance use, recidivism, and costs.