Decriminalization broadly refers to the removal or reduction of criminal penalties from particular substances or activities. Although the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, decriminalization and legalization are not the same thing. Legalization implies complete removal of governmental control, whereas acts or substances that are decriminalized are still subject to state control even if the acts are no longer considered criminal. Commentators often vary on their interpretation of the term, based on the extent to which the state is involved in regulation. Terms such as partial decriminalization and full decriminalization specify the extent of state enforcement.
Decriminalization often takes place in response to social change. A society may change its political or moral views regarding an act, thereby no longer viewing the act as harmful, deviant, or worthy of intervention by the criminal justice system. Acts that are subject to decriminalization are typically victimless or public order crimes. A victimless crime refers to an act that is regarded as illegal and potentially harmful to society despite the lack of a victim. Prostitution, homosexuality, abortion, pornography, and illicit drug use are examples of acts that are, or were considered, victimless crimes and have been, or are, subject to decriminalization.
Although the concept of decriminalization can be applied to a wide variety of acts and substances, most of the discussion regarding the topic involves the debate over the decriminalization of illicit drugs. Those in favor of drug decriminalization often refer to the lack of success enjoyed by the current prohibition policy in the United States. Current policies, they argue, tend to overcrowd prisons, cost a great deal of money to enforce, and cause an increase in drug-related violence. Others argue that decriminalizing drugs would allow the state to place some regulations on the quality and purity of substances, as is the case with alcohol and tobacco, thus reducing the dangers that drug users face in consuming unregulated substances. Opponents of decriminalization suggest that such measures would drastically increase drug use or that decriminalization may not actually decrease drug-related violence.
Also relevant to the discussion of drug decriminalization is the issue of civil liberties. Those in favor of decriminalization note that prohibition not only results in restricting one’s right to use psychoactive substances but also encourages unconstitutional practices by law enforcement, given the discrete nature of drug distribution and use. The varying levels of government control, coupled with the uncertainties over whether drug use is an individual right or a societal problem, make for varying perspectives on decriminalization at both ends of the political spectrum.
- Goode, Erich. 2007. Drugs in American Society. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Husak, Douglas N. and Peter de Marneffe. 2005. The Legalization of Drugs. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Inciardi, James A. and Karen McElrath. 2004. The American Drug Scene. 4th ed. Los Angeles: Roxbury.
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