What Is the Difference Between Medical Cannabis and Recreational Cannabis?

08 December, 2022
What Is the Difference Between Medical Cannabis and Recreational Cannabis?

For some people, cannabis is a way to relax, unwind, have fun, and enjoy. For others, it represents relief. Whether it's relief from stress, trauma, pain, or debilitating symptoms, cannabis patients can find great comfort in this beloved plant. If you are a recreational consumer, you may have wondered how your products differ from medical cannabis. Likewise, if you're a medical consumer, you've probably questioned the difference between your stash and the adult-use stash. If you fall into either category, all your questions are soon to be answered. Let's take a look at medical cannabis and recreational cannabis and see what makes them different.

Are They Really That Different?


No matter what type of product you're purchasing, it all comes from the same plant. At its core, there isn't anything inherently different about medical and recreational. Ultimately, it's how the strains are cultivated and distributed that truly set them apart. State law also plays a role in this conversation.

In fact, prior to 1996, cannabis was cannabis. There were no labels to distinguish a medical strain from a recreational strain. But because cannabis was deemed a Schedule I controlled substance in 1970 (meaning the federal government declared it had no medical value), something had to be done to change public perception. So when California moved to legalize medical consumption in '96, the two categories were created to differentiate strains that had more health benefits from those that were more mentally stimulating. 

Recreational cannabis wouldn't be legal anywhere in this country for another 16 years. But when Colorado and Washington opened the door to non-medical consumption in 2012, it was the beginning of a new era for the cannabis community. Now, we have the two categories to help determine what is legal and the type/quality of a product.

Even though the term "medical cannabis" is a more recent development, people have been consuming for medicinal purposes throughout the ages. In China, Emperor Shennong explored and documented its effectiveness in helping people suffering from ailments like gout, rheumatism, and constipation — and this was back in 2737 BC! Ancient Egyptians believed it could treat tumors in cancer patients, which is consistent with many modern-day studies. Ancient Greeks also turned to this plant not only to care for their battle wounds but to treat the injuries of their horses as well. Even in our own country, medical use of cannabis was a recognized and legitimate practice for nearly 100 years until it was stricken from the United States Pharmacopeia in 1942, following the 1937 Marihuana Tax act.


It's in the Ratio

One of the biggest differences you'll see between medical and recreational cannabis is the THC and CBD content. Those who are in it for a good time may find higher amounts of THC than those who are looking for pain and/or symptom relief. This doesn't mean that THC doesn't have its own soothing properties, but patients don't always need or want the psychotropic effects that come with it. CBD, on the other hand, won't affect your mind and is often viewed as the more therapeutic cannabinoid; it is great for helping with anxiety, inflammation, and cancer symptoms, just to name a few. Because medical cannabis is typically lower in THC, it's safer for people of all ages. Recreational consumption is not as inclusive though, since it comes with greater age restrictions. 

It's important to remember that just because a product is low in THC does not mean it's automatically medical grade. There are plenty of recreational strains that are sold with lower amounts of THC. Both types of products are available in the form of vapes, prerolls, edibles, concentrates, and so on.

There are over a hundred cannabinoids found in cannabis plants, but when a strain is cultivated for a medical product, only CBD and THC are targeted. These are considered to be the most medically beneficial cannabinoids, meaning the end result is carefully designed to help a patient receive the most from their consumption. 

There's a higher degree of quality control over plants that are grown for medical distribution. While recreational cannabis can be grown inside or outside, medical cannabis must be cultivated indoors. The latter product is also subjected to stricter regulations when it comes to chemicals like pesticides.

Although researchers have faced an uphill battle in studying the effects of cannabis, many experts strongly believe that it can help patients with numerous symptoms and ailments, including chronic pain, sleep and eating disorders, PTSD, epilepsy, muscle spasms, and more.


Acquiring Products

Legality is another major difference between the two product types. There's much greater access for medical consumers because recreational consumption is illegal in most states, whereas medical cannabis is legal in well over half of the country. If you indulge and you're in a state where recreational cannabis is illegal, you could be fined or even jailed.

You'll see a difference in how both varieties are obtained as well. For one, medical consumers may be able to procure larger doses than recreational shoppers. Patients must have a qualifying condition and carry a special card to purchase medical products, which are available in medical dispensaries. These dispensaries limit capacity to one shopper at a time so that each person may browse privately. And while recreational customers are not permitted to shop at medical dispensaries, patients can purchase from recreational shops. Keep in mind that non-medical dispensaries are unable to offer any medical guidance, so this is not an ideal option for patients. 

You may also find places that are licensed to carry both product types. Employees working for dispensaries that stock medical and recreational cannabis will be able to offer patients advice for finding the right product or strain.   

Cost will vary depending on the type of shopper. Medical consumers get tax breaks and reduced prices, and depending on state law, they can save even more money by growing plants of their own. Recreational cultivation is often permissible as well, though it's typically restricted to a lower quantity than what patients are allowed to grow.

Now that you have a more comprehensive understanding of how recreational and medical cannabis differ, you can better appreciate what you're bringing home. If you believe you might have a qualifying condition, it may be time to see a physician so you can get the right product. And if you live in a state that allows both forms of consumption and you're 21 or over, you can enjoy with or without a doctor's recommendation.