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Decriminalization is the process through which the legislature removes criminal sanctions against an act, omission, article, or behavior which is considered a crime. Decriminalization means it would remain illegal, but the legal system would not prosecute a person for the act. The penalties would range from no penalties at all to a civil fine. This can be contrasted with legalization which is the process of removing all legal prohibitions against the act. 

Recently, several states have decriminalized marijuana. Decriminalization of marijuana drops criminal sanctions for the use or possession under a specified amount. A decriminalized drug is still illegal; but the punishment would not be a criminal sanction, like arrest or incarceration. Instead, offenders may still face a civil fine or require drug treatment/education. The production and sale of decriminalized drugs is still prosecutable by law; drug possession that is decriminalized by a state still allows the drug to remain federally controlled and regulated.

[Last updated in September of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]