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What Is The Difference Between Medical And Recreational Cannabis?

Created by
JoshuaHolt JoshuaHolt
Added 10 November 2021

Both recreational and medical marijuana is now legal across many states; however, doctors often advise their patients to stick to their prescribed medical cannabis. So, how is medical cannabis different from recreational marijuana? Or, is there any difference at all? After all, both forms come from cannabis plants, so what’s the big deal?

In this article, we will explore the differences between medical and recreational cannabis. 

What is Recreational Cannabis?

recreational cannabis

Recreational marijuana or cannabis usually refers to buds containing high concentrations of THC. Recreational cannabis, in other words, is weed you consume just to have fun without emphasizing its medicinal benefits. Currently, recreational cannabis is legal in Canada, Uruguay, and some states in the USA. Anyone over 18 can purchase recreational marijuana in legalized locations without a medical card, depending on specific laws. 

What is Medical Cannabis?

medical cannabis

Most people refer to the entire plant when talking about medical cannabis. Cannabis contains hundreds of cannabinoids or compounds that provide lots of medical benefits. Two of the most famous cannabinoids are THC and CBD. Medical cannabis usually contains high concentrations of CBD. 

However, this is not to say that THC is devoid of medical benefits. For example, THC activates CB1 receptors present in both the nervous system and the brain that aids in reducing pain. THC is also prescribed to patients in the form of an FDA-approved drug called Dronabinol or Marinol and Nabilone (Cesamet) to minimize vomiting and nausea caused by chemotherapy when no other medications seem to work. 

THC may have the potential to reduce migraine attacks, according to some studies [1]. In addition, a new cannabis-derived drug named Canasol might also help to reduce glaucoma. 

On the other hand, CBD has also caught the attention of researchers. Like THC, it’s also used in an FDA-approved drug called Epidiolex [2] meant to manage rare forms of epilepsy. Although both cannabinoids can aid with many ailments, medical cannabis usually contains more CBD than THC. 

Currently, medical cannabis is legal in many countries across the globe. However, you may need a  medical marijuana card (MMJ) or a prescription to purchase it. 

Just in case you don’t know how these cannabinoids affect you, here’s an explanation. 

What is THC?

THC or tetrahydrocannabinol is one cannabinoid among the hundreds of other cannabinoids present in the cannabis plant. Regular marijuana plants have high concentrations of THC. As a dominant cannabinoid, it’s responsible for the narcotic high you experience while consuming or smoking cannabis. Due to significant demand from recreational users, in particular, breeders often try to increase the levels of THC to please users. 

What is CBD?

CBD or cannabidiol is also a cannabinoid, like THC. Unlike THC, though, it’s non-psychoactive. CBD has lots of medicinal benefits and is available to patients in the form of oils, edibles like gummies, chocolate, coffee, patches, sprays, etc. 

Scientists have conducted comprehensive studies on both THC and CBD. And, both cannabinoids have medicinal benefits; however, medical marijuana contains high concentrations of CBD, and recreational marijuana contains loads of THC. Therefore, the primary difference between medical and recreational marijuana depends on the concentration of cannabinoids such as THC and CBD. But, as you read on, you will see that there are many other differences. 

Recreational vs. Medical Marijuana: Cultivation

recreational marijuana

Although medical and recreational cannabis plants grow similarly, there are a few differences in quality. Cultivators use the same process but tend to pay more attention to medical marijuana due to stricter regulations.

In short, you will find differences in quality between medical and recreational weed. For instance, medical cannabis requires a more controlled process where the cultivators pamper the plants indoors. 

Sure, they grow recreational cannabis also indoors, but recreational cannabis doesn't have severe limitations in terms of laws and regulations. In addition, the cultivators are very particular about the type of pesticides used to ensure that the medicine is safe for medical cannabis users. 

The laws are strict even for the dispensaries that stock medical marijuana. They will need separate licenses to sell both medical and recreational marijuana. Dispensaries are required to stock medical cannabis that’s safe for consumers. Also, they may need to check their products frequently to ensure that the cannabis is safe from contaminants. 

In simple terms, both medical and recreational marijuana is safe to be consumed. Still, medical marijuana is safer and boasts of a higher quality than recreational cannabis because growers must follow strict procedures.

Recreational vs. Medical cannabis: Legality

medicinal cannabis

One primary difference that sets medical and recreational cannabis apart is legality. Medical cannabis was legalized in many locations much before recreational cannabis. Even today, some governments hesitate to legalize recreational cannabis, although they have no problems making medical cannabis legal. 

While medical cannabis users can consume cannabis without restrictions and don't need any documents apart from a doctor's prescription, recreational users are forced to consume it in hiding due to legal restrictions.

In addition, medical marijuana is accepted in many countries worldwide for adults and children, provided adults have a medical prescription and children get a certificate from their respective legal guardians. 

In fact, medical cannabis became super popular because of Charlotte Figi — a six-year-old who suffered from Dravet's syndrome — a rare form of epilepsy. Charlotte suffered from more than 300 seizures every week, and her parents tried most medications, but none worked. Ultimately, a strain named Hippie's Disappointment reduced her seizures to a great extent. Today, the strain is renamed “Charlotte’s Web” and is popular among medical cannabis users.  

Charlotte's recovery was the primary catalyst that led to a major medical cannabis movement. Just a few years later, medical cannabis was legalized in many states and countries. Currently, medical marijuana is legal in 36 states in the USA. Subsequently, CBD derived from hemp is legal in all 50 states. So, what's the difference between hemp and marijuana? Well, you can read all about it here

But, if you want a simple answer, the difference lies in the levels of THC. Any cannabis plant containing less than 0.3% THC is considered hemp. However, hemp and medical marijuana are not the same because several medical strains contain more than 0.3% THC. 

Recreational vs. Medical cannabis: Accessibility

medicinal marijuana

Things are not easy for recreational marijuana users since recreational marijuana or cannabis used just to get high is illegal in most locations. Although medical cannabis is used globally and governments are relaxing regulations to allow more consumption, recreational cannabis users find it hard to obtain cannabis. In addition, recreational marijuana users can face serious jail time since it's considered an offense to consume cannabis in non-legalized locations.

Recreational cannabis also faces too many legal hurdles that invariably affect its accessibility. Nothing prevents recreational users from obtaining medical marijuana and using it for recreational purposes; however, it's not easy since they need a prescription.

Although both types of cannabis come from the same plant, there is a remarkable difference in how they are available. If you're lucky enough to reside in countries or states that have legalized both types of marijuana, this doesn't apply to you. 

But, as you can surmise by now, only medical cannabis is legal in most places, so there's a difference even in terms of shopping. For example, dispensaries welcome medical marijuana users with various benefits by applying discounts on products. Moreover, budtenders are trained to answer questions posed by medical cannabis users. They are vetted strictly and are well-qualified to answer questions. 

Medical cannabis is available in both dispensaries and recreational cannabis stores as well. Furthermore, the government reduces tax for those purchasing medical marijuana. They are also allowed to purchase more, depending on the prescription. Similarly, those looking to grow cannabis for medical purposes can grow more than recreational users.

However, the same isn't true for recreational cannabis users. Not only are the taxes higher, but you can't expect significant discounts either. In addition, budtenders aren't required to answer questions posed by recreational users.

Recreational vs. Medical Cannabis: Purpose

Cannabis has always been a taboo topic but the stigma is reducing slowly as more states legalize both forms of marijuana. Medical marijuana users consume cannabis with the sole intention of deriving health benefits while recreational users ingest marijuana to enjoy a high. 

While people are empathetic towards medical marijuana consumers, the same isn’t true for recreational users. Some users are forced to use the herb in hiding despite living in legalized locations because people tend to label them as “stoners.” 

Although there isn’t much of a difference between recreational and medical marijuana except for the levels of cannabinoids at times, the stigma surrounding recreational usage will probably take more time to recede. 


The primary difference between medical and recreational cannabis is that medical cannabis generally contains more CBD. However, medical marijuana users can also use high-THC strains, depending on their prescription. 

Medical cannabis is legal in many states. Furthermore, CBD extracted strictly from hemp containing less than 0.3% THC is legal in all 50 states of the USA. Similarly, hemp is legal in many countries for both industrial and medical purposes. 

That said, medical cannabis doesn’t necessarily equate to hemp because some medical strains also contain high amounts of THC, and consumers can use them depending on the type of ailment bothering them. 

As long as users have a medical marijuana card (MMJ), they can buy cannabis from stores with dual licenses and dispensaries. Medical cannabis is legal in most parts of the world, whereas recreational cannabis is yet to be legalized.

Resources Cited In This Article

  1. Rhyne, D. N., Anderson, S. L., Gedde, M., & Borgelt, L. M. (2016). Effects of medical marijuana on migraine headache frequency in an adult population. Pharmacotherapy: The Journal of Human Pharmacology and Drug Therapy36(5), 505-510.
  2. US Food and Drug Administration. (2018). FDA approves first drug comprised of an active ingredient derived from marijuana to treat rare, severe forms of epilepsy. Published June25.