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Decriminalize marijuana? Four ways America's views of pot are changing

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., Monday.
Tim Roske/AP
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2. Decriminalization

Decriminalization is not legalization. The terms are often used interchangeably but mistakenly, say experts. 

Decriminalization means that the use (or possession, in some cases) of an established quantity of marijuana remains illegal, but the penalties are not harsh; often simply fines, similar to a traffic citation, and no imprisonment. 

Legalization means that the use or possession of marijuana is not illegal. There are no penalties attached.

Currently, the private, nonmedical possession of marijuana by an adult has been decriminalized in eight states: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New York, and Oregon.

Five additional states – Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, and Ohio – treat marijuana possession offenses as a fine-only misdemeanor offense. Alaska law imposes no criminal or civil penalty for the private possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults.

Since 1996, 17 states and the District of Columbia have legalized its use for medical conditions.

New York Governor Cuomo's bill to reduce the criminal misdemeanor to a violation with a fine up to $100 would save thousands of New Yorkers –disproportionately black and Hispanic youths – from unnecessary arrests and criminal charges, the governor says.

Rhode Island is also considering decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana under legislation set for a vote in the General Assembly. The state House and the Senate are both scheduled to debate and vote on the measure Tuesday.

The legislation would replace criminal penalties for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana with a $150 civil fine. Minors caught with pot would also have to complete a drug-awareness program and community service.

“Many states will attempt the decriminalization process before legalization,” says Tod Burke, professor of criminal justice and associate dean at Radford University in Virginia. “It is a means to take baby-steps towards the possible legalization.”

The rationale for what New York, and possibly Rhode Island, is recommending might make sense for them, says Professor Burke. “However, it is important to understand that one states’ rationale for the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana is not a one-size-fits-all approach," he says. "Each state must decide what is in the best interest of its citizenry.”

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