The Differences Between Legalisation And Decriminalisation Of Drugs

If you have used, or are using drugs, you might be fortunate enough to have never been arrested or convicted in relation to your drug use. In fact, many drug users go through years of drug use such as ice addiction, complete a comprehensive drug rehab program, and the irony is the first time they are ever stopped by police is when they are completely clean, but have a faulty brake light or go through a ‘Stop’ sign without stopping.

If you were to be stopped by the police in relation to drugs, how the course of events that follow will play out will very much depends on where you are. We do not mean what bar, street, or park you might be in, but in relation to the country or the state you happened to be in at the time you are stopped by the police.

The reason for this is that each country has its own views, and subsequently its own laws in relation to drugs. Often these laws differ within a single country where individual jurisdictions have differing attitudes and legislation relating to drugs. This can cause confusion not only for tourists and visitors to that particular area, but also for its own residents.

Examples include the USA where you have some states which have relaxed laws on cannabis and others where the penalties remain severe, even when caught in possession of a small amount. Australia also has states where the penalties for possession of some specific drugs differ greatly. And in the UK there is a push within Scotland for drug consumption facilities to help tackle drug crime which is being opposed by the majority of English MPs, thus preventing it from being pursued.

All of these differing penalties, and attitudes relating to drugs, even within the same country, make understanding drugs laws particularly difficult, and this is added to by confusion over the difference between legalisation and decriminalisation. Some people think they both mean the same thing, whilst others mistakenly use one word, when it is the other which applies. To try and ensure you are not confused by these terms, here are definitions which we hope clarifies them.


When a government or a jurisdiction, such as a territory or a state, legalises a drug, it means that all crimes and penalties for possessing and using the drug on a personal basis are removed from their statute books. However, there might still be laws in place with respect to the production, cultivation, and supply of such a drug out with authorised channels of supply.

An example is alcohol which it is perfectly legal to purchase and consume in many countries, but if you were to set up a stall and your street and start selling pints of lager, you would sound have the police turning up. The same applies to those jurisdictions where cannabis has been legalised. Anyone in possession of cannabis would not be committing a crime, but there are likely to be strict rules over its supply and who can supply it legally.


In those areas where a drug has been decriminalised it remains illegal for anyone to possess and use that drug, however, if someone is caught with small amounts for personal use they are unlikely to face any criminal prosecution. Instead they might be a civil fine or penalty.

It will also be the case that although a drug is decriminalised , its production and supply will remain a criminal offence and those prosecuted may face severe penalties if convicted of supplying drugs.