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Cannabis 101

What’s the difference between recreational and medical cannabis?

June 1, 2018

What Makes Medical and Recreational Cannabis Different?

In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational cannabis. Before that, cannabis was legal in certain states only to those with qualifying medical conditions. As more states follow in Washington and Colorado’s footsteps, “recreational” or “adult-use” have become the commonly used terms for personal cannabis consumption that isn’t exclusively for medical purposes.

But beyond the distinction of consumer intention, what other differences exist between medical and recreational cannabis?

The Medical vs. Recreational Cannabis Shopping Experience

When it comes to the shopping experience itself, medical and recreational shops tend to offer similar experiences. Qualified medical marijuana patients present both their ID to prove they’re legally old enough to purchase cannabis, as well as their valid medical cannabis card. Some medical shops will have a waiting room where patients are called in one at a time to ensure privacy.


What to Expect on Your First Visit to a Dispensary or Retail Cannabis Shop

Oftentimes, recreational stores are not permitted to provide medical advice to customers, although you can still shop at them as a medical patient. Some shops are also “dual-licensed,” meaning they can cater to the needs of both recreational and medical consumers. They may also offer discounts and tax breaks to medical patients.

Medical dispensaries and dual-licensed shops are best equipped to answer patient questions, especially those that provide education opportunities for their budtenders, such as seminars and certifications. Don’t be afraid to explore multiple dispensaries until you find one with a well-trained staff that you connect with.

Browse Dispensaries Nearby

As for product selection, there tends to be very little difference between medical and recreational menus. At either store type, you’re bound to find the shelves full of various edibles, drinkables, vaporizers, topicalsstrains, and concentrates.

Different States, Different Perks

Medical patients may receive certain perks not available to recreational consumers. These generally include:

  • Lower costs and taxes
  • Higher THC potency limits
  • Higher quantity restrictions
  • Legal access for minors in approved medical cases (e.g., cancer or epilepsy)
  • Medical patients may be allowed to grow their own cannabis (or are permitted a higher plant count than recreational consumers)

Find out more about the benefits of having a medical cannabis card in a legal state by consulting this resource.


What Are the Benefits of a Medical Cannabis Card in Legal States?

How Are Medical and Recreational Cannabis Perceived Differently?

Social stigma and perception further bolden the dividing line between medical and recreational cannabis, as a greater percentage of Americans support medical cannabis than recreational adult use.

Using cannabis for enjoyment is still somewhat taboo in the public eye, although you don’t need to be suffering a severe disease to find wellness benefits in casual use. For example, when a state legalizes recreational cannabis, a consumer might first fall in love with the easy access to a variety of high-quality strains, only to discover an infused topical that works wonders on a chronic condition. Or, a healthy adult may find that a low-dose tincture helps alleviate daily stress and anxiety.

As new products and medicines with a wide range of benefits come to market, it’s easy to become fan of both recreational and medical cannabis. And it’s only a matter of time before state laws come to reflect that.

Lead image: Yarygin/iStock

Mark Hunstman's Bio Image

Mark Hunstman

Mark Huntsman is a contributor to Leafly. In his 12-year career, he's written about education, technology, philanthropy, ocean science, and of course cannabis. The novel he’s been writing since roughly the dawn of time recently landed actual representation by an actual agent.

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  • Jeff Avery

    cannabis is medicine,,,,and recreational cannabis is preventative medicine

  • Paulette

    I’ve been a pot smoker for 35 yrs I recently got a my medical card. I was wondering is there a chance I could be allergic to pot shop weed n not street weed? I seem to be having allergy problems ever since I started getting medical. I dont get it, I’ve smoked some of the best weed around. If I do have a allergy to the medical anything I can do for it? It sure is nice to walk in and get what I’m actually looking for and not just what the dealer has…lol

    • Fuuh Buho

      are you going to a medical dispensary or a recreational one?

    • Pete

      Paulette, you cannot trust them. If you have no other connections that are better, you just have to deal with it. I wish you the best. I feel your pain. The medical sure is garbage in Jersey. Thats all i know..

  • Pete

    I am from New Jersey. I am 33 years old and have my medical marijuana card. I grew up smoking kind bud. All types of exotic strains on a weekly basis. Medical marijuana in New Jersey is completely pathetic and the people who grow that should be completely ashamed of themselves. They are taking your money. For some, it is worthwhile to just quit smoking until you move to another state. It truly is a joke. I’ve never had red eyes, cottonmouth or laughed very hard as a result of being high since 2004. The government is raping people. And this needs to stop.

  • Pete

    Ppl smoke to get stoned. That is what medicated means. It would be equivalent to walking into a liquor store that only sells O’Doul’s. And says it is just as good.