Marijuana Decriminalization: What does it mean in the United States?
Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, Jamie F. Chriqui, Joanna King
NBER Working Paper No. 9690
It is well known in the drug policy field that eleven states reduced the criminal sanctions associated with possession of small amounts of marijuana. In this paper we review the eleven original decriminalization statutes, documenting key dimensions of these laws and identifying their common denominator. We then examine state laws in effect as of December 31, 1999, along the same key dimensions and show that it is impossible to uniquely identify the so-called decriminalized states. We show the extent to which non-decriminalized states have also reduced penalties associated with possession of small amounts of marijuana as early as 1989, calling into question the interpretation of studies evaluating this policy during the past decade. We conclude by showing that the inclusion of legal dimensions of the policy does not diminish the association identified between decriminalization and recent use, raising questions about how researchers should interpret such findings.