Pubdate: Thu, 15 Feb 2001
Source: Slate (US Web)
Copyright: 2001 Microsoft Corporation
Author: Chris Suellentrop
Click here for a state-by-state guide to marijuana penalties.)


New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a Republican, has sent to the state 
legislature a bill that would decriminalize possession of 1 ounce of 
marijuana. The New York Times reported today that 10 other states have 
already done that. Which states are they? And what does it mean to 
"decriminalize possession"?

The states are Alaska, California, Colorado, Nebraska, New York, North 
Carolina, Maine, Minnesota, Ohio, and Oregon. These state legislatures 
(except Alaska's) decriminalized marijuana possession in the 1970s. Oregon 
was the first, in 1973, following the recommendations of the Nixon 
administration's National Commission on Marijuana Use (also known as the 
Shafer Commission). Nebraska was the last, in 1979. Another state, 
Mississippi, decriminalized marijuana possession in the '70s but later 
recriminalized it as a misdemeanor offense.

The state of decriminalization in Alaska is unclear. A 1975 state Supreme 
Court decision decriminalized marijuana possession, but voters approved a 
state referendum in 1990 that recriminalized all possession. Subsequent 
court rulings have upheld the 1975 decision, but the state's high court 
hasn't ruled on the matter, so the law remains ambiguous.

What does it mean to decriminalize possession? Decriminalization treats the 
possession of small amounts of marijuana (such as 1 ounce) as a civil, 
rather than a criminal, offense. Offenders are given a citation and fined, 
and their marijuana is confiscated. Possession of larger amounts is still a 
criminal offense because it implies an intent to sell. (The laws differ 
from state to state. Ohio, for example, decriminalizes possession of up to 
100 grams, or 3.5 ounces. Click here for a state-by-state guide to 
marijuana penalties.)

Legalization, as opposed to decriminalization, would create a legal, 
regulated market for marijuana, presumably with age limits and quality 
controls similar to those placed on alcohol. Decriminalizing possession is 
also different from the decriminalization of "medical marijuana," which 
allows patients to use and sometimes cultivate marijuana for therapeutic 
purposes, with the permission of a doctor.

Explainer thanks Keith Stroup, executive director of the National 
Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
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