Dear Journalists, Marijuana Decriminalization is Not Legalization!

marijuana decriminalization media coverage

There are clear differences between drug legalization and decriminalization, yet parts of the media are still guilty of using the terms interchangeably. This is a call for journalists to, please, get it right!

The most recent example of such a misnomer came in coverage of Jamaica’s drafting of a bill on September 30 to decriminalize marijuana. The majority of outlets correctly reported the event, outlining how if passed the possession of two ounces or less of cannabis will become a petty offense, punishable by a small fine. However, the International Business Times (IBT) ran the headline: “Cannabis to be Made Legal as Jamaica Finally Ends Its Weed 'Prohibition'.”

Two things. Firstly, cannabis will not be made legal. Secondly, the bill still needs to be put before and passed by parliament. While it seems likely MPs will approve it before the end of the year, this should not be taken as a given.

Throughout the whole article, no mention is made of the bill being one geared toward legalizing marijuana. In fact, the term decriminalization is correctly utilized in the second paragraph. So, why put “legal” in the headline when there is a clear disconnect between the two?

The inconsistency in the use of legalization and decriminalization by the media in particular is damaging since misrepresentation only serves to further fuel the misunderstanding that already plagues the drug policy debate. This is not to single out the IBT who are by no means the only culprits in this. When reporting on the same topic in June, the Daily Mail -- that bastion of reliable journalism -- used both terms, in the title

At this juncture it seems pertinent to outline the differences between the two. The table below, taken from the International Drug Policy Consortium's (IDPC) 2012 Drug Policy Guide, provides concise definitions for different reform initiatives.

More often than not, these are perfectly innocent (albeit careless) oversights by both writers and editors. However, in some instances it is seemingly done with intent in an effort to pander to sensationalism.

A case in point would be when Release published an open letter on June 26 calling on the UK government to review its drug laws and move toward a system that lessens the “harms caused by drugs and current drug policies.” Some media outlets -- among them, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, and The Independent -- erroneously reported that the 80 high-profile signatories to the letter were calling for drug legalization in the UK. After Release contacted all three to request the term legalization be changed, The Independent and Mirror did so upon being made aware of its incorrect application. The Daily Mail, on the other hand, flatly refused, laying bare its agenda on the issue. 

It is, of course, easy for those of us who work to cover drug policy issues to point out the failings of coverage in the mainstream media. For one, it must be appreciated that journalism as a profession is a shrinking one, with writers expected to cover more issues that may not be their area of expertise. Mistakes with the terminology are inevitable in whatever topic is being covered, not just drug policy.

Nevertheless, in the age of online media and an endless number of resources that are just a few clicks away, it only requires a small measure of diligence on the part of editors to correct this problem. The media is a core source of information for the general populace. Thus, getting it right is of the utmost importance. Without sounding overly pernickety, the matter at hand is an important issue that needs to be tackled, particularly as drug policy reform garners more attention.