Decriminalizing vs. legalizing weed—who’s right, and what’s the difference?
When U.S. Rep. and gubernatorial candidate Allyson Schwartz broke the news to Philadelphia Weekly that she’d support decriminalizing simple marijuana possession at the state level, some were a bit shocked. After all, Schwartz had never expressed any interest in decriminalizing the plant. Her most recent score by the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws was a -10, implying a “hard on drugs” stance from the advocacy organization.
But the candidate and frontrunner in the Pennsylvania governor’s race had switched her tune, now noting: “Simple possession and personal use should not be criminalized.” Her reasoning behind that, in part: Laws against marijuana use are “not applied very evenly.” In other words, though whites and blacks use marijuana at roughly the same rate, blacks are much more likely to be arrested for possession and use, in Pennsylvania and nationwide.
Schwartz was applauded by some advocates throughout the state, and the story made the rounds nationwide, including on Fox News. But not everyone’s buying it.
“Decriminalization is simply false advertising,” wrote fellow gubernatorial candidate John Hanger in a blog post on his campaign website after the story broke, “because it wouldn’t decriminalize at all—it just reduces penalties.”
Hanger insists that decriminalization—which is supported by other Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidates, like Max Myers—would not actually end the mass incarceration that’s gone along with marijuana prohibition since the 1930s. In fact, the candidate writes, only full legalization would put a stop to the sorts of problems often associated with marijuana sales and possession.
“Only legalization will stop the waste of $300 million in law enforcement resources Pennsylvania spends annually waging this senseless war,” said Hanger, who has been endorsed by NORML. “Only by the legal sale of marijuana will new revenues and new jobs be generated. And, importantly, legal sales in controlled, regulated settings will be a much more effective way to keep marijuana out of the hands of youngsters.”
In Philadelphia, Councilman Jim Kenney has proposed a decriminalization bill that would slap those caught with less than an ounce with a simple $200 fine plus a drug treatment class. This news is encouraging for pot advocates and those in favor of saving some time and judicial cash in the city—just as was Schwartz’s and Myers’ explanation that they’d like to see decriminalization happen at the state level. The issue is part of the conversation now.
But problems remain. Whether pot possession is decriminalized in Philly or not, it will continue to be illegal to sell and buy marijuana. “Decriminalization sucks,” cannabis and marijuana reform advocate Les Stark wrote on his Facebook page, regarding Kenney’s bill. ”You’ve got this ENORMOUS demand for weed in a city the size of Philly, and yet all channels of distribution are illegal and therefore controlled by the black market.”
Stark’s vast research on hemp cultivation in Pennsylvania was a large part of Philadelphia Weekly’s report this fall regarding marijuana legalization. He similarly notes that many of those advocating for decriminalization have gone so far as to admit that pot is not a threat. Kenney, like Hanger, has even described a situation in which pot might be sold in state liquor stores.
“Within the mentality of that bill is the recognition that cannabis is relatively harmless, that the prohibition and criminal penalties do more harm than good and that there is a better way,” Stark continued. “In other words, they know the truth.”
Kenney’s idea aside, many who advocate decriminalization are a bit vague on the details. But looking at what some other states have in place, it’s easy to see where such a compromise could go wrong.
Possession and cultivation of less than 100 grams of marijuana has been decriminalized in Ohio since 1975. Getting caught is a “minor misdemeanor” with a $150 punishment and a driver’s license suspension. Half an ounce in North Carolina is considered a misdemeanor, too, but the guilty can still spend up to 30 days in jail and pay a $200 fine. Marijuana has been decriminalized in New York City for decades.
Meanwhile, in Ohio, 2007 alone saw 23,335 marijuana arrests.
North Carolina saw 20,983 marijuana-related arrests in 2010—with blacks arrested at a rate 3.4 times higher than whites.
More than 400,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in New York City during Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor.
And they all make up part of the 8 million people arrested for marijuana between 2000 and 2010—88 percent of whom were brought in for “simply having marijuana,” according to the ACLU.
So, is the new discussion of decriminalization something to celebrate? Sure—because it implies politicians are catching up to the public and are finally willing to toss out the rhetoric that smoking some weed is akin to hard drugs, which is how it’s still classified by the federal government. It’s great to hear President Obama saying marijuana is no worse for you than alcohol. But whether decriminalization, rather than legalization, will actually do much to change the situation—that’s an open question.