Decriminalization vs. Legalization: What You Need to Know

April 15, 2021

This campaign cycle, New York City mayoral candidates like Eric Adams and Andrew Yang have raised the topic of drug legalization and decriminalization. And last month, several candidates were asked about their stance on decriminalization of low-level possession of drugs at VOCAL-NY’s Caring and Compassionate Mayoral Forum. While it’s encouraging to see candidates make drug policy reform part of their platform, it’s important to clarify the difference between decriminalization and legalization—and how it can save lives.

Decriminalization does not equate to legalization.

  • Unlike the MRTA bill signed by the governor this month that legalizes the sale, possession, and production of marijuana, drug decriminalization would remove the threat of arrest for drug use and possession of small quantities, and increase services and access to care for people struggling with drug use.

  • While it can look different across the board, most forms of decriminalization change criminal penalties for possession of small quantities of drugs to a non-criminal violation (a ticket), making drug users pay a fine and/or connect with treatment and social services — not force them into jail. The goal of shifting away from criminalization to a health-based approach for drug possession is to reduce the harms of criminalization, and offer care and safety to communities.

Decriminalization will not trigger drug use to skyrocket, rather, it can reduce overdose deaths and increase the amount of people accessing treatment.

Decriminalization would address the disproportionate penalization of Black and Brown people and their interaction with the criminal-legal system. 

  • In 2018, there were more than 1.6 million drug arrests in the United States. More than 86% of these arrests are for possession only, and many more are for minor selling and distribution violations.

  • According to the Drug Policy Alliance, Black people make up 29% of those arrested for drug law violations and roughly 35% of those incarcerated in state prison for drug possession only, despite making up just just 13% of the U.S. population.

  • In 2019, more than 45% of people arrested or cited for drug offenses in NYC were Black, despite Black New Yorkers making up under 25% of the city’s total population.

Scroll to Top
Skip to content