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Difference Between Legalization and Decriminalization

Legalization vs Decriminalization

The differences between legalization and decriminalization is something that often confuses students. After all, the prefix “de” makes it seem as though an act is no longer illegal which could be misconstrued for being “legal.” However, in law terminologies, “illegal” is actually different from “criminal” and, therefore, would put a different take on the legalization versus decriminalization issue.

To put it simply, “legalization” is the process of turning a particular action into being legal. For example, legalization of prostitution means that patrons no longer have to hide whenever they seek the services of a prostitute. The act becomes completely legal and is just as acceptable as the purchase of gum or candy in a retail store. All the punishment and consequences attributed to the act are no longer in effect.

On the other hand, “decriminalization” means that the criminal penalties attributed to the act are no longer in effect. Coming back to the original example, decriminalization of prostitution means that individuals found committing the act would be exposed to lesser penalties like a fine or a special permit. In this case, if prostitution is decriminalized, then individuals engaged in the business would need to have an official approval from the government in order to operate OR be fined if they are caught doing it. Some individuals are of the opinion that the decriminalization of an act reflects the changing social values of a society. For example, should prostitution be decriminalized, then this means that more and more people are learning to accept the presence of the industry. Consequently, it is taken as a hint that a decriminalized act has the possibility of being legalized after some years.

In essence, you would still need to hide when doing a decriminalized act unless, of course, a special permit is allowed and you have it in person. Basically, should prostitution be decriminalized and you have been caught in the act, then the penalties afforded would be tantamount to a speeding ticket.
It usually takes careful consideration on the part of the lawmakers when deciding on whether an act should be legalized or decriminalized. These concerned individuals would look into the future impact of an action and determine whether or not legalization would provide advantages on the whole. As mentioned, decriminalization reflects the changing views of society about various issues. Usually, society finds that an act does not have any negative side effects and should, therefore, not be considered criminal, or possibly it is too flimsy that the justice system need not bother with it.

Some of the acts that are still being pondered on today with regards to their criminality involve; abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, polygamy, prostitution, use of steroids in sports, and even breastfeeding in public. The view on these subjects actually changes from state to state or from country to country. In fact, some governments have made prostitution legal (Germany and the Netherlands) while others clearly define it as illegal (Philippines and most Muslim countries). However, some countries have separated the two acts in prostitution (selling and buying) wherein the person who purchases sexual services is committing a criminal act while the prostitute is not.


1.Legalization makes an act completely acceptable in the eyes of the law and is, therefore, not subject to any penalties.

2.Decriminalization simply means that an act is no longer regarded as a criminal crime but is still subject to penalties or fines, much like getting a speeding ticket.

3.Decriminalization is often considered as a result of the changing views of society.

4.Some believe that decriminalization of an act can lead to its legalization.

5.Examples of acts that are being pondered with regards to their criminality are: prostitution, abortion, and the use of steroids in sports.

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1 Comment

  1. I came here because of talk of legalization / decriminalization of cannabis. Similar to how the article describes it, cannabis is usually considered for decriminalization, including store licenses, permits, medical requirements.

    Considering that the “Journal of the AMA – Psychiatry” just ran an article concluding that the recent increase in legal cannabis usage (getting high) has not incurred an increase in any personality disorders, and there’s another news article every week about how cannabis reverses cancers and a host of other illnesses, it would seem to me that the different levels of governments should just legalize it.

    One day, people convicted of aggressive driving will be ordered to have breath-a-lizers installed in their cars, and they will be required to smoke some pot before their cars can start and they’re allowed to drive on public roads.

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