Someone is arrested for a marijuana offense every 58 seconds. There were 545,601 marijuana arrests in the country in 2019, and 92% of these arrests were for marijuana possession alone — not for sale or manufacturing. In the U.S., there are more arrests for marijuana possession each year than for all violent crimes combined.
Thirty-one states and Washington, D.C. have enacted laws to stop jailing their residents for possession of small amounts of marijuana. In 15 of those states, marijuana is legal for adults 21 and older, while 16 have “decriminalized” simple possession of marijuana. Most of the decriminalization states impose a civil fine, which avoids the life-altering collateral consequences a criminal record carries. Decriminalization laws avoid imposing harsh punishments for possessing a substance that is safer than alcohol, while freeing up law enforcement to focus on serious crimes. Many of these laws were first enacted in the 1970s, and they have proven so non-controversial that several have been expanded.
MPP defines a state as having a “decriminalization” law if the state has enacted a law that imposes penalties other than jail time for possessing small amounts of marijuana, at a minimum, for a first offense. Some of the states MPP considers “decriminalization” states continue to classify marijuana possession as a crime, but they punish possession with penalties other than jail. In addition, a state may impose jail for subsequent offenses and still be counted as a “decriminalization” state by MPP. MPP’s model civil fine bill imposes a civil fine for possession, with drug education and community service for minors.
Learn more about cannabis decriminalization and the various state decriminalization laws.
NOTE: Voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota approved adult-use cannabis legalization initiatives on November 3, 2020. None of these states had decriminalized cannabis. We are in the process of updating our materials, but some do not yet reflect the changes. With these four states, we count 31 states that have decriminalized or legalized cannabis.