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Criminalization and Decriminalization of Marijuana Possession in Non-Legalization States

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Criminalization of marijuana has little deterrent effect. Many individuals are not even aware that cannabis possession is a criminal offense, in part because criminal penalties are rarely and inconsistently applied. Research also shows that criminalization does not significantly reduce marijuana use and raises costs through incarceration. 



  • Although some states assess criminal penalties on users, such as charging them with a misdemeanor, other states “decriminalize” simple possession, meaning it is treated as a civil infraction, like a parking ticket. In this case, the individual pays a fine but does not  acquire a criminal record. 
  • Research shows that decriminalization of possession sharply reduces arrests. Unlike legalization, however, decriminalizing possession--under which production and sale remain illegal--does not create a corporate industry that promotes cannabis use.


Criminalization of simple cannabis possession imposes a high cost in terms of arrests (both police time and impact on arrestees) while producing little decrease in cannabis use.

Key Policy Evidence:

  • Shifting from a criminalized to decriminalized approach to cannabis possession results in little or no increase in population marijuana use, according to research.
  • In California, the 2010 decriminalization reduced misdemeanor possession arrests by 86% in just 12 months. The drop was present across racial groups and for adolescents and adults.
  • In South Australia, decriminalization paradoxically led more cannabis users to have contact with the criminal justice system because police were willing to issue tickets to many individuals that they would not have arrested when possession was illegal.