Although the term can have several meanings, "legalization" in most modern legal discussions refers to the lawful use, sale, and production of certain banned materials, such as drugs. One of the first large political discussions over legalization came in the United States during the early 20th century, when uproar over the banning of alcohol led to the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933. Legalization of certain drugs, such as marijuana, has always remained a controversial question in the realm of public debate.
Legalization is quite different than decriminalization. This distinction is greatly important to the management and trial of offenders, and has certainly raised some hackles in the great marijuana debate. By decriminalizing an action, such as marijuana possession, the ruling court removes laws against it, making possession a civil infraction at best, rather than a criminal charge. Legalization usually refers to creating a system of laws and regulations for the management of a legal product. Alcohol and tobacco, for instance, are legalized, because there is a regulatory system that guides their production, use, and sale.
The debate over legalization of any kind most often relates to activities that are considered voluntary and consensual. This may include drug or alcohol use, prostitution or sexual activity of any kind, abortion, and elective surgery. There are often several important ethical and legal questions involved in any serious debate about legalization. At the heart of the matter, civil liberties, economics, and safety issues all play a part in the discussion.
Hard-line civil libertarians tend to suggest that government control should extend into personal lives only so far as is unquestionably necessary to ensure freedom and public safety. The overturning of laws prohibiting interracial marriage or homosexuality, for instance, have always been linked to the idea that the government has no right to interfere between the consensual private actions of two adults. Where to draw the line, however, is the question that raises debate. Many health experts and clinical studies suggest that marijuana is no more addictive or dangerous than alcohol or tobacco; so one of the common arguments for marijuana legalization focuses on the elimination of the distinction between these regulated substances.
Economically, legalization often leads to increased government revenues. The overturn of Prohibition led to government taxes on alcohol, which helped increase the wealth of the country. The debate in this realm usually relates to how much money could be saved or generated through taxes, and whether economic gain would be offset by increased public safety risk.