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Dear Mama: Legalization vs. Decriminalization

Dear Mama,

I’m new to the pot world. I’ve just started learning about where my candidates stand, looking at joining some groups, and generally trying to advocate for the plant. Sometimes it gets really confusing. How do you find the right advocacy group to work with?

I also don’t understand the difference between Legalization or Decriminalization. A few months ago, I thought they were the same thing. I’m starting to think it is not the same thing because it seems like people are arguing about which is better.

Same or different?

Thanks, Doobie

Dear Doobie,

The cannabis world needs more people like you, so welcome to the cannabis advocacy world.

I get confused all the time with the laws, grey areas, legalization, decriminalization and the differences from state to state. It could really be a full time job just trying to keep up with it in real time.

I’m going to answer your questions in reverse. Let’s start with the legalized versus decriminalized differences first and then wrap up with some suggestions about how to best utilize your advocacy energies. You didn’t ask me my opinion but you did ask me the difference. It’s your lucky day because I’m gonna give you a little of both as a two for one.

Decriminalized means removing any criminal penalties. So, you would be fined or referred to appropriate support or treatment if found using a formerly banned substance. It wouldn’t be legal to use it, but if you’re caught, you wouldn’t be arrested.

While doing my reading, I noticed one article called decriminalization: the worst of both worlds. It seems to me like a limbo, because I’m not sure I want the police force to direct me to a treatment center for my cannabis use. Who decides on the fines? Proponents for decriminalization talk a lot about the great cost reduction from not arresting or prosecuting a nonviolent drug offense. However, it seems to me that either option would produce those huge cost savings.

Legalization would mean that prohibition is gone, but of course, there are different types of legalization. Under full legalization, all prohibitions would be removed from the use or possession. Ideas range from full legalization to ‘regulated legalization’, where drugs would be legally available, but you might still need a ‘medical pot card’ or a license to grow or sell, which might assist in standards for health and quality. Or there would be label requirements, that sort of thing.

Legalization proponents often just object to drug laws on moral grounds, and those who would rather we tried regulated legalization suggest they have the best plan because there may be risks associated with currently prohibited drugs that should not be open for easy access and use.

Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001. Overdoses are rare, and it is often implied that this is due to people not having the same fears of arrest when seeking help. Canada nationally legalized cannabis this year and has implemented more of the regulated legalization. I’d recommend reading up on the pros and cons of both systems and apply your own standards to see which you support. Although Canada’s laws are new, there is a lot of reading available on the arguments for and against passing the legalization.

You can learn a lot about all the versions of the concepts at various cannabis advocacy websites. I found that, while NORML supports legalization (it’s in their name and all), the Drug Policy Alliance support decriminalization and both of them represent their viewpoints well. I’ve attended events for groups that support both viewpoints, so if an advocacy event sounds interesting to you, I would go even if it represents the opposite viewpoint. Great way to learn more, share your ideas and find common ground.

On to one of my favorite topics, cannabis advocacy. You’ll find me saying all the time that this can be done in so many ways!  There is the casual advocacy of representing the community in a good light. There is what you’ve been doing, which is getting up to date on the candidates and what they think about cannabis. Staying educated on the latest actions in the movement and then deciding and aligning your views with one of the paths to ending prohibition that we talked about earlier and assist in taking action to further the objectives that mean something to you.

My favorite is also attending cannabis events and groups that work together to advocate for local laws and regulations. You’ll make new friends and important new contacts. I started doing this when we first passed the Medical Marijuana Act. I made friendships that have lasted till today, learned who was working on what, and combined interests to make some great things happen in the cannabis space. I created businesses based on contacts I made at advocacy events. I also volunteered for anything that sounded fun. It all sounded fun.

So, get out there and join anything that looks interesting, informative or fun. Ask your dispensary to keep you posted on events. Ask around. Go a few times and see if its your scene. You may learn about other events at those events. That’s how it usually works. Then your web of influence will broaden and you’ll know where your crowd is. I don’t know if I have ever met a more welcoming group of folks than cannabis advocates.

Hope to see you out and about at events Doobie! You’re going to love the advocate’s life!

Stay Lifted, Mama

For more letters to Mama, click here.

Laura Mastropietro

Laura Mastropietro, former cannabis co-op grower and patient advocate, consultant, Edible Chef for two edible lines, featured in ‘Cannabis Saved my Life’ by Elizabeth Limbach, currently curates a learning hub called, stays active in the cannabis community while running a restaurant and commercial bakery in beautiful Sedona Arizona. Wife, Mother, Grandmother, with a full beautiful life and toss in a life altering disease, cannabis is the magic that helps her keep it all going. Have a cannabis question? Send it to Dear Mama at



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