Decriminalization refers to a policy of reduced penalties for cannabis offenses, typically involving a civil penalty for possessing small amounts (similar to how a minor traffic violation is treated), instead of criminal prosecution or the threat of arrest.
In the United States, the non-medical use of cannabis is legalized in 18 states (plus Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the District of Columbia) and decriminalized in 13 states (plus the U.S. Virgin Islands) as of June 2021.
During a wave of decriminalization in the 1970s, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize cannabis in 1973. Ten more states followed by the end of 1978, influenced by the Shafer Commission‘s endorsement of decriminalization in 1972. By the end of the decade the tide had turned in the other direction, however, and no state would decriminalize again until 2001.
Efforts to legalize cannabis included a number of ballot initiatives leading up to 2012, but none succeeded. In 2012, success was finally achieved when Washington and Colorado became the first two states to legalize. In 2014 and 2016 several more states followed, and in 2018 Vermont became the first to legalize through an act of state legislature. All jurisdictions that have legalized cannabis allow for its commercial sale, except the District of Columbia. All allow for personal cultivation except Washington State and New Jersey.
At the federal level, cannabis remains prohibited for any use under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. The Justice Department has generally not enforced federal law in states that have legalized cannabis, under the guidance of the Cole Memorandum that was adopted in August 2013. The Cole memo was rescinded by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in January 2018, however, granting U.S. Attorneys greater authority to enforce federal law.