North Dakota quietly decriminalized marijuana earlier this month, making it the 25th state to do so.
As the news outlet Marijuana Moment and the advocacy group NORML reported, Republican Gov. Doug Burgum signed a bill decriminalizing marijuana last week — but the issue got little to no attention from his office or news media. The law makes it so first-time possession of up to half an ounce of marijuana is no longer a criminal misdemeanor that carries the potential for jail time, but instead is an infraction that only carries a fine.
This is different from marijuana legalization. Under decriminalization, penalties carrying jail or prison time are removed, but lower-level penalties, like a fine, remain in place and sales remain illegal. Under legalization, all penalties for marijuana possession are removed, and sales are typically allowed.
Some opponents of legalization favor decriminalization as a step toward peeling back America’s harsh drug and criminal justice policies. They see “tough on crime” policies as too punitive and costly, but they don’t want to resort to full legalization, which they fear would make pot too accessible in the US and allow big corporations to sell and market the drug irresponsibly.
The concern for legalization advocates is that decriminalization keeps the ban on selling marijuana, which means users wouldn’t have a legal source for the drug, and criminal organizations would therefore still have a source of revenue that they can use for violent operations around the world. The fines, while less punitive than arrests or prison time, can also cause problems, since they’re often applied in a racially disparate manner.
Ten states and Washington, DC, have legalized marijuana, although DC and Vermont don’t allow sales. Fifteen additional states, now including North Dakota, have only decriminalized.
North Dakota voters rejected a marijuana legalization ballot initiative last year, but activists reportedly will try again in 2020.
Supporters of legalization argue that it eliminates the harms of marijuana prohibition: the hundreds of thousands of arrests around the US, the racial disparities behind those arrests, and the billions of dollars that flow from the black market for illicit marijuana to drug cartels that then use the money for violent operations around the world. All of this, legalization advocates say, will outweigh any of the potential downsides — such as increased cannabis use — that might come with legalization.
Opponents, meanwhile, claim that legalization will enable a huge marijuana industry that will market the drug irresponsibly. They point to America’s experiences with the alcohol and tobacco industries in particular, which have built their financial empires in large part on some of the heaviest consumers of their products. This could result in far more people using pot, even if it leads to negative health consequences.
For now, legalization is not reality in North Dakota. But decriminalization is.
For more on marijuana legalization, read Vox’s explainer.