What are the specific differences between something being legal and decriminalized, especially if it is labeled as completely legal/decriminalized? What examples of this exist?

  • 7
    Can you clarify any specific country or jurisdiction?
    – JJJ
    Mar 18, 2019 at 14:59
  • 2
    I've noticed a lot questions about law being asked on Politics when there's a Law SE.
    – Zebrafish
    Mar 19, 2019 at 4:26
  • 2
    @Zebrafish When you talk about changing law, it becomes politics. Mar 19, 2019 at 9:53
  • The votes to close for off-topic seem surprising to me. I could understand a vote to close for unclear since no jurisdiction is mentioned, but a question about changing laws seems perfectly within the realm of politics to me.
    – reirab
    Mar 19, 2019 at 14:52

5 Answers 5


Decriminalization means that some action (e.g., drug consumption) is no longer considered a criminal action, which means that you're no longer sent to jail or get a criminal record. However, you may still face fines, confiscation of relevant goods and other consequences.

Legalization means that there are no legal repercussions for some action (e.g., drug consumption) whatsoever.


  • 4
    +1 as this is the only answer (so far) which gets the point: the difference is the difference between not being a criminal offence and not being an offence at all (not even a civil offence).
    – Rosie F
    Mar 18, 2019 at 16:58
  • 7
    So if something got downgraded from a criminal offense to a civil infraction or something like that, that would be a decriminalization? (Sorry if I got my terminology wrong, I don't have any legal training, obviously). Mar 18, 2019 at 18:18
  • 2
    @EJoshuaS: Yes, that's broadly correct. A "civil infraction" is roughly synonymous with "something that you could get a ticket for, but normally face no risk of jail time."
    – Kevin
    Mar 19, 2019 at 1:46
  • Especially with drugs fo example, in Portugal (where almost anything is decriminalized), they still confiscate it, and if you are caught repeatedly give you a mandatory consultation. If you are on welfare rehab MAY be a sanction (if they think you have lost control) stuff like that is not an option with a legal substance
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 19, 2019 at 13:15
  • I find this confusing. As I understand the distinction between criminal and civil proceedings isn't that criminal proceedings are more serious - petty crime exists - or that you can't get jail time for, but that criminal proceedings are generally brought by a public prosecutor in the name of the people or the state, and civil proceedings are brought on behalf of a wronged individual or organisation.
    – bdsl
    Mar 19, 2019 at 23:36

If something is illegal, it carries with it punitive measures. If it is decriminalized, it no longer carries such punitive measures. It is important to note though, that it may still be illegal. Often such laws eventually disappear through other legislation.

  • Should your first sentence be something like "When something is made illegal, it carries with it punitive measures"? Although there are examples of token illegality, where something is made into a crime without a punishment.
    – origimbo
    Mar 18, 2019 at 12:00
  • @origimbo How could something be illegal without having been made illegal? Laws don't come into existence spontaneously, they're made by people. It's only relevant if you're talking about a change in status (it wasn't illegal last year, now it is), but that doesn't affect whether there are punitive measures.
    – Barmar
    Mar 18, 2019 at 16:03
  • 1
    @Barmar All the answers have had to deal with the awkward linguistic gap between legality and enforcement. This was the first answer, and read literally says something like "all illegal things are punished. decriminalised things are illegal, but not punished", which is an interesting paradox. I was attempting to suggest one way out.
    – origimbo
    Mar 18, 2019 at 16:15
  • @origimbo I think all the answers have an implied "generally", as non-punishable illegal acts are outliers, not what we generally consider the meaning of the word. Perhaps on Law it would be more important to make this distinction.
    – Barmar
    Mar 18, 2019 at 16:18
  • 1
    @BenM, Another great example of the third sentence are the anti-miscegenation laws of the Southern states of the United States. Many of those laws were written into state constitutions. Even though those laws were overturned on a national level in 1967, and enforcement of those laws ceased as well as the penalties disappearing, state constitutions are not easy to change. The last of those laws were only finally removed in the late 90's. So though miscegenation was decriminalized, it was still technically 'illegal' and the laws were only removed years to decades later through other legislation.
    – ouflak
    Mar 19, 2019 at 10:44

It may be a situation where there are (almost) always a pair of offences being committed, and decriminalisation avoids the law actually assisting the party committing the more grave offence.

For example, if possession of, say, small amounts of marijuana for personal use is an offence, a person cannot go to the police (and still less testify on oath) concerning a drug dealer's behaviour, without incriminating himself. If possession is decriminalized, then he can.

Similarly if one decriminalizes prostitution (the act of selling sex for money or buying it), then it makes life harder for pimps.

In both cases the decision is a pragmatic one. The decriminalized thing remains illegal -- society does not approve of it -- but the law has decided that the best way to combat a criminal "industry" is to target the main players rather than their "customers" or the bottom rung of their orgainsation.


Caveat: IANAL and this is entirely dependent on jurisdiction.

In Australia, whether an offence is a crime or a misdemeanour is determined by its classification in the Criminal Code Act 1995 and subsequent amendments.

Conviction of any act classified as criminal goes on public record (literally, a criminal record) and this has far-reaching consequences including ineligibility for employment by the civil service at state and federal levels, and also for specified types of employment such as teaching and childcare.

After criminal conviction society will no longer trust you, whereas the consequence of a misdemeanour conviction ends with the fine. Punishment for crimes may involve mandatory imprisonment; this is not (so far as I can determine on a cursory reading) the case for misdemeanours, which normally offer a choice between payment of a fine and imprisonment.

A thing is completely legal if there is no conceivable legal obstruction.

Breathing is legal. Having a beach bonfire is not.

  • 2
    As much as I want to agree with it, the last paragraph is not objective discourse for the stack exchange. Mar 19, 2019 at 12:38
  • What's not objective about it? Is a burden imposed on others without consultation? Yes. Is it punished? No. Is this a departure from the legal convention? Yes. Was that the point? Yes. Are any of these questions subjective? No. What exactly was not objective about it? Also I challenge you to find another straightforward example of unpunished quantifiable damages.
    – Peter Wone
    Mar 19, 2019 at 23:16
  • Unfortunately the subject is too touchy and the damages are not quantified. I always tell the great challenge of this age is to quantify diffuse damages. We were able to do it with carbon emissions. But for example, if a company programs their lifts to save electricity (and thus people have to wait in the lobby for a lift for longer) the electricity savings are quantifiable, just look at the bill or the lift system metrics. But how much money is the company losing because employees are not being productive while they wait longer for the lift? That is a "not quantified damage". Mar 20, 2019 at 12:17
  • What is the average value added by a new citizen to the nation as a whole? What are the costs of raising one without parental support? The rabbit hole is deeper than we'd like. Mar 20, 2019 at 12:17

Something that decriminalized is still technically illegal, but there is no punishment for it and law enforcement does nor pursue people for it. People previously convicted of the crime are not usually pardoned.

Note: This is in the context of the UK legal system, others may differ.

  • 7
    This is not true. Police officers routinely pursue people for traffic violations, most which are not "crimes" (felony/misdemeanor); they are the lower class of "infraction", not punishable by any jail time (although aggravating factors can cause what would otherwise just be an "infraction" to become a misdemeanor or even a felony). Mar 18, 2019 at 16:24
  • 3
    What Monty said. At least in the context of the U.S. legal system, there are lots of civil offenses that aren't criminal, but still have punishments. You may be fined for speeding, for example, but it isn't typically a criminal offence.
    – reirab
    Mar 18, 2019 at 16:48
  • Wrong jurisdiction guys, I was talking about the UK. Made that clear now.
    – user
    Mar 19, 2019 at 10:05

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