It appears inevitable that marijuana policy will radically change at both the state and federal levels in the near future. A recent Pew Research Center poll reveals that for the first time since marijuana attitudes have been measured, a majority of Americans now favor legal marijuana for recreational purposes. Much like the gay marriage issue, public opinion is changing quickly. The biggest factor correlated to one's attitude towards cannabis is age, and as crass as it is to say, each day more marijuana prohibitionists die, only to be replaced by 18 year old voters who are overwhelmingly in favor of legalization.
There are two possible ways in which cananbis policy could change. One is decriminalization and the other is legalization. Although both approaches are better than the current marijuana policy, legalization is a far better option than decriminalization.
With decriminalization, cannabis would remain illegal, however, penalties would be relaxed, or the police would not enforce the law as aggressively. For example, possession of a small amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia could be downgraded to a summary offense from misdemeanors. Perhaps there would no longer be ridiculous collateral consequences, such as an automatic driver's license suspension or a lifetime bar to federally subsidized student loans for a conviction for possession of a small amount of marijuana. Another form of decriminalization would entail the police not charging mere users with anything, while continuing to actively prosecute dealers. Yet another alternative, already adopted in Philadelphia, is to charge users only with the summary offense of disorderly conduct. The Philadelphia approach did not require any legislative action; Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams enacted the policy on his own, to unclog the overcrowded criminal docket.
Legalization entails regulating and taxing cannabis just like alcohol and tobacco. This means that legitimate businesses can enter the cannabis trade, while decriminalization allows unregulated, non-tax paying dealers to continue to operate. The advantage of decriminalization is that users can avoid criminal records and law enforcement and the judicial system can more effectively use their limited resources, however, the government would still not collect any tax revenue.
With decriminalization, unregulated dealers could continue to sell marijuana to high school students, while legitimate businesses would sell only to adults. Any teenager will tell you that it is easier for him to buy weed than it is to obtain alcohol, yet to the extent that cannabis is harmful, it is most harmful when used by adolescents, whose brains are not yet fully developed. Just as a liquor license is too valuable to risk over serving to minors, so too would be a cannabis license. Legalization and regulation should make it harder for juveniles to obtain marijuana.
The bottom line is that legalization provides all the positives of decriminalization, with none of the negatives. We would see a huge increase in tax revenue, and it would become far more difficult for minors to obtain marijuana than it is now.
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense attorney in State College, PA, who has handled countless marijuana-related cases throughout his career. http://www.mattmlaw.com/Criminal-Defense-Overview/Drug-Possession.shtml