Difference Between Decriminalization and Legal Regulation

difference between decriminalization and legal regulation difference between decriminalization and legal regulation


In the context of substance use, decriminalization removes criminal penalties for certain activities involving drugs. In most examples of decriminalization, the substances are still illegal to produce and distribute, but people caught possessing or consuming them will not go to jail or get a criminal record. Instead, penalties (if imposed) are administrative, such as fines.

Decriminalization decreases the risk of fatal overdose for people who use drugs because individuals no longer have to rush injections for fear of arrest or consume substances alone in remote locations out of public view to avoid police. Both behaviours are associated with higher risk of fatal overdose.

Some other documented benefits of decriminalization include

In 2001, Portugal decriminalized drug possession with very successful outcomes including consistently low drug use rates, an increase in the number of people in drug treatment, reduced HIV infection, reduced overdose fatalities, and reduced arrest and incarceration of people for drug offences. Decriminalization of possession and use has been supported by 31 United Nations agencies in a joint position.

As Canada is in the midst of its worst opioid poisoning crisis, we are now hearing calls for decriminalization from politicians, health professionals, advocates, and the media. Some countries have implemented decriminalization since the 1970s, while others never criminalized drug use and possession in the first place. Currently, there are around 30 countries that have adopted formal policies of decriminalization, from the Czech Republic to Mexico, to some jurisdictions in the United States.

Legal Regulation

Unlike decriminalization, where the drugs themselves remain illegal, legalization (or legal regulation) makes substances like diacetylmorphine (heroin) and cocaine legal but allows government to control and manage their production and supply instead of an unregulated, illegal market where quality and safety controls are absent. 

While decriminalization has important public health and human rights benefits, as noted above, it still leaves the production and distribution of drugs to an unregulated market where lack of regulatory controls can lead to a contaminated drug supply. Legal regulation, on the other hand, sets up a system of control to prevent the contamination of drugs by creating and enforcing rules for production and distribution.

To reduce the harms to people using substances, we would want to ensure rules around 

  • Who gets access to what substances
  • How access is provided
  • How much of a certain substance an individual can access
  • Where substances can be consumed
  • Any health and safety information that must be included to better protect the public

In October 2018, Canada became the second country in the world to legalize cannabis. In the Canadian system of legalization of cannabis, the federal government sets standards for production, packaging, types and strength of products that can be produced, as well as baseline rules. It also licenses producers of cannabis. Provinces and territories set rules for the distribution and sale of cannabis and can craft stricter regulations for things like the age of access and quantity purchased. They also license distributors and retailers. 

We know that the existing system of prohibition fuels high-level organized crime, an unregulated market that is increasingly contaminated with deadly chemicals, and overdose deaths. If we legally regulated the drug supply using a public health and human rights approach, we could reduce the negative effects of prohibition while minimizing the risks to individuals and society.

About Regulation Project

The Regulation Project is an international collaboration to advocate and educate for the legal regulation of drugs.