What 'Decriminalizing Marijuana' Really Means 

In July of 2019, lawmakers in New York passed a law that will decriminalize cannabis. And on August 28th, it took effect statewide and New York officially joined 14 other states that have also passed decriminalization laws. 

But what does it really mean to “decriminalize” a substance? Read on for the full intel.

Set of handcuffs laying on sheet of fingerprints

The difference between decriminalization and legalization 

It’s easy to assume “decriminalization” is the same as “legalization.” But it’s not! New York did not legalize marijuana for recreational use. Instead, decriminalizing cannabis will do two main things: First, it will seriously lessen drug penalties for possession of cannabis; and second, it will allow the state to expunge the records of those that have been convicted of marijuana possession in the past. 

So why take this intermediate step instead of just legalizing marijuana flat out? In many cases, decriminalizing is a compromise between lawmakers who want to fully legalize cannabis and those that want to keep it illegal or reserved only for medical purposes. It’s often considered a steppingstone between medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. 

In New York’s case, medical marijuana laws were passed in 2014 but even after months of negotiation this year, democratic lawmakers failed to fully legalize the industry. And so, they settled for decriminalization. The new law was backed by Governor of the state, Andrew M. Cuomo, who is a Democrat but has been slow to get behind the cannabis legalization movement. 

What decriminalizing marijuana really means

According to the New York Times, “The measure...is a significant change in a state in which tens of thousands of residents have been arrested for small-scale possession.” Decriminalization also aims to reduce the racial inequalities that exist in drug possession cases. "Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by laws governing marijuana for far too long, and today we are ending this injustice once and for all," Gov. Cuomo said in a statement.

According to the new rules, possessing less than two ounces of marijuana will no longer be a misdemeanor but a violation subject to a fee of anywhere from $50 to $200. The consequences of smoking marijuana in public will also be downgraded from a misdemeanor to a violation. Possession of any more than two ounces will still be considered a crime. Every state’s decriminalization laws are different. For example, the amount of cannabis a person can possess before it’s a crime can range from 10 to 100 grams depending on the specific state law. 

What decriminalization means for CBD 

But what about CBD? Does decriminalized marijuana mean anything for the hemp industry? Not really. In fact, at the same time as New York was decriminalizing marijuana, they were also cracking down on CBD. The health department recently declared that CBD is “not safe as a food additive” and banned it from being served as one. This means no more CBD-infused coffees, hot chocolates, or desserts sold at restaurants and cafes. The most important law to know when it comes to hemp is still the 2018 version of the Farm Bill, which officially removed hemp from the list of controlled substances and officially allowed it to be grown, sold, purchased, and freely transported across state lines. 

Written by Gretchen Lidicker

Senior Health Editor & CBD Expert or Contributing Health Editor and CBD Expert. Gretchen is a writer, researcher, and author of the book CBD Oil Everyday Secrets: A Lifestyle Guide To Hemp-Derived Health & Wellness. She has a masters degree in physiology and complementary and alternative medicine from Georgetown University and is the former health editor at mindbodygreen. She’s been featured in the New York Times, Marie Claire, Forbes, SELF, The Times, Huffington Post, and Travel + Leisure.

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