New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a Republican, has sent to the state legislature a bill that would decriminalize possession of 1 ounce of marijuana. The New York Times reported today that 10 other states have already done that. Which states are they? And what does it mean to “decriminalize possession”?
The states are Alaska, California, Colorado, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Maine, Minnesota, Ohio, and Oregon. These state legislatures (except Alaska’s) decriminalized marijuana possession in the 1970s. Oregon was the first, in 1973, following the recommendations of the Nixon administration’s National Commission on Marijuana Use (also known as the Shafer Commission). Nebraska was the last, in 1979. Another state, Mississippi, decriminalized marijuana possession in the ‘70s but later recriminalized it as a misdemeanor offense.
The state of decriminalization in Alaska is unclear. A 1975 state Supreme Court decision decriminalized marijuana possession, but voters approved a state referendum in 1990 that recriminalized all possession. Subsequent court rulings have upheld the 1975 decision, but the state’s high court hasn’t ruled on the matter, so the law remains ambiguous.
What does it mean to decriminalize possession? Decriminalization treats the possession of small amounts of marijuana (such as 1 ounce) as a civil, rather than a criminal, offense. Offenders are given a citation and fined, and their marijuana is confiscated. Possession of larger amounts is still a criminal offense because it implies an intent to sell. (The laws differ from state to state. Ohio, for example, decriminalizes possession of up to 100 grams, or 3.5 ounces. Click here for a state-by-state guide to marijuana penalties.)
Legalization, as opposed to decriminalization, would create a legal, regulated market for marijuana, presumably with age limits and quality controls similar to those placed on alcohol. Decriminalizing possession is also different from the decriminalization of “medical marijuana,” which allows patients to use and sometimes cultivate marijuana for therapeutic purposes, with the permission of a doctor.
Explainer thanks Keith Stroup, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.