Depenalization differs from legalization in that drugs remain illegal, but possession of small amounts carry minor penalties such as fines or community service, rather than time in jail.

Since the 1970s, many U.S. states have depenalized the possession of limited amounts of marijuana as misdemeanor offenses. Mexico has broadened depenalization to include small amounts (a half gram) of hard drugs, but the amounts seem irrelevant to many—a half gram of cocaine is less than the typical minimum of one gram sold on the street.

Decriminalization goes beyond depenalization and involves replacing existing laws that previously required penal sanctions for drug-related offenses with an entirely new regime that works alongside the legal system. It seeks to address drugs (and substance abuse) as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice or law enforcement challenge. The seemingly fuzzy difference between depenalization and decriminalization is best explained by looking at the example of the only country to-date to have fully decriminalized the consumption of all drugs, Portugal.

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Posted by Bernardo Rico