Decriminalisation vs legalisation

Decriminalisation of illegal drugs can be a confusing issue, with the terms decriminalisation and legalisation often being conflated in media coverage of the issue. We discuss what it means, why Australians are talking about it and how it works.

Many Australians have heard the term decriminalisation without it being clearly defined. Whether it’s a chat over coffee with friends, a disagreement at the family dinner table during holidays or a heated policy debate, it’s critical that everyone understands what decriminalisation means to have an informed discussion about it.

This paper outlines what decriminalisation is, its rationale, how it differs from legalisation and some key considerations about decriminalisation models.

Document: Mini Bulletin: Decriminalisation of illegal drugs


907.3 kb

signing legal documents

Key points

  • Decriminalisation is the removal of criminal penalties for the possession of a small amount of a drug and personal use.
  • Under decriminalisation civil or administrative penalties may be introduced instead.
  • Under decriminalisation drug possession and use remain illegal.
  • Decriminalisation does not appear to increase rates of drug use.
  • A policy of decriminalisation needs to be considered alongside investment in treatment services to be successful.

In summary


  • No criminal penalties
  • May be civil or administrative penalties
  • Drug possession and use are illegal
  • Does not change production, distribution or supply of drugs – still through black market


  • No penalties if regulations are complied with
  • May be criminal penalties if regulations aren’t followed
  • Drug possession and use are legal
  • Regulations control production, distribution and supply

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