Difference Between Legalisation and Decriminalisation

People often use the terms Legalisation and decriminalisation interchangeably. But very few are aware of the fact that the two terms aren’t the same. They have a very thin line of difference that has the potential to create a big impact, and so, it is better to be aware of it.

Legalisation vs Decriminalisation

The main difference between Legalisation and Decriminalisation is that Legalisation makes an act completely legal in the eyes of the law, and anyone who is found committing it isn’t subject to any penalties or punishments. On the other hand, Decriminalisation is just declaring an act to be characterised as non-criminal with minimal penalties or punishment.

Legalisation and Decriminalisation

Legalisation is the process of making an act legal. This means that the respective activity is no longer illegal in the eyes of the law of that particular country. It is possible that an act is legal in one country but is completely prohibited or illegal in some other country.

Decriminalisation is the official process of doing an act completely out of the non-criminal category in the eyes of the law. But, it doesn’t mean that it is completely legal either. A decriminalised act still has the potential to drag the convict into paying a fine or subject to some minimal punishment.

Comparison Table Between Legalisation and Decriminalisation

Parameters of ComparisonLegalisationDecriminalisation
AboutIt is the process of making an act legal in the eyes of law.It is the process of making an act completely non-criminal.
Views of societyLegalisation has little to no connection with the views of society.It is considered that Decriminalisation depends upon changing views of the society.
BeliefA legal act is also a decriminalised act.A decriminalised act may or may not be legal.
ExampleIf prostitution is legalised then there will be no charges on the people involved in the act.If prostitution is decriminalised then there will be minor penalties but no major punishment.
PenaltiesLegalisation makes an act fully free of penalty.Decriminalisation makes an act subject to minor penalties.

What is Legalisation?

The explanation of legislation is in its name itself. Legalisation is described as a process in which an act, no matter how big or small, is declared legal in the eyes of the law. Many long procedures and formalities need to be followed to make an act legalised. This means that the act which is now legalised is no longer prone to punishments or penalties. Anyone found committing the act cannot be asked for a penalty, nor can he or she be punished.

The legalisation of any act has nothing to do with the views of society, and it doesn’t change with it. Many long discussions and thoughts are given before concluding the legalisation of an act. It is safe to say that legal activity is ultimately a decriminalised act, but vice versa is not true. For example, if prostitution becomes legalised, then the people involved in the activity are no longer subject to any fines or punishment. There are already debates going on about several topics like homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, and breastfeeding in public. Some countries like the Netherlands and Germany declared prostitution legal a long time ago, while some of the Muslim countries and the Philippines still believe that it is completely legal.

What is Decriminalisation?

The use of the suffix ‘de’ in the world of decriminalisation does its job quite nicely. Decriminalisation is a process of declaring an act as no longer under criminal activities. Therefore all the criminal penalties like fines and punishments are removed from that act. People often mistake decriminalisation to be the same as legislation, but it is not. Even though the act is declared to be non-criminal, it still cannot be placed the same as being legal. 

Even though decriminalisation frees an act from being of the criminal category but still does not give it the right to be legal in the eyes of the law. If people are found committing a decriminalised act, they are still bound to pay a fine or undergo some minimal punishment. The fines and punishments are considerable e minor, but one cannot avoid them. It is a belief that decriminalised acts ultimately become legalised after a while. Also, it has been brought to notice by a lot of people that decriminalisation varies with the change in thoughts of the public. However, the bottom line remains that a decriminalised act is not necessarily a legal act but can eventually become in future.

Main Differences Between Legalisation and Decriminalisation

  1. Legalisation is the process of making an act legal in the eyes of the law, whereas decriminalisation is the act of making an act completely non-criminal.
  2. Legalisation makes an act free of penalties and punishments, while decriminalisation makes the act subject to minor penalties and punishments.
  3. Legal action can be seen as a decriminalised act, but a decriminalised act cannot be declared as a legal action unless passed by the law.
  4. The legalisation of an act has very little to no business with the views and thoughts of people, while Decriminalisation is often regarded as the result of changing views and thoughts of the people.
  5. For example, if prostitution is legalised, then there will be no charges or punishments for the people involved in the act. On the other hand, if prostitution is decriminalised, then there will be charges on the individuals involved in the act but negligible to no punishment.


There has been a constant debate over the issue of legalisation and decriminalisation of various acts. Different countries have different views and thoughts about declaring an activity to be legal or decriminalised. Some have declared prostitution to be decriminalised act while others continue to put it under illegal acts. People found committing illegal activities have to pay a hefty fine along with major punishments like imprisonment. It is best to be thoroughly aware of your country’s rules, laws, and regulations to avoid getting into any kind of illegal or criminal activity.


  1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0955395918301786
  2. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/16066359.2018.1544626
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