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What is the difference between medical and recreational cannabis? You’re probably familiar with the cannabis plant and its products, but state laws differentiate medical and recreational cannabis use, even if all products come from the same plant.

Here, we look closely at the similarities and differences between medical and recreational cannabis so that you can choose the right cannabis program for you. 

What Is Medical Cannabis?

Cannabis has been used for therapeutic purposes for thousands of years and continues to provide relief for many patients.

Medical cannabis is a term used for cannabis products that are solely used for medicinal purposes.

Although cannabis research is in its early stages, studies suggest that the plant’s compounds (cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, etc.) can have several health benefits, including:

  • Anxiety relief
  • Pain relief
  • Anti-inflammation
  • Anti-epileptic
  • Sleep aid

Medical cannabis programs allow patients with a doctor’s recommendation and a medical card to buy cannabis products from licensed dispensaries.

Each state has its list of qualifying medical conditions for cannabis use. In some cases, doctors have full discretion in recommending cannabis for any disease or symptom that would be relieved by cannabis.

Learn how to become a medical cannabis patient with our blog post.

What Is Recreational Cannabis?

Recreational cannabis refers to cannabis products that are not regulated for medicinal use. In states that have legalized recreational cannabis, adults over 21 may buy cannabis from licensed dispensaries without needing a medical card.

Although many recreational users may use cannabis for therapeutic purposes, to relieve anxiety or insomnia, they can but do not have to buy cannabis from medical dispensaries.

What Are the Similarities Between Medical and Recreational Cannabis?

Although medical and recreational cannabis is regulated differently by state laws and used for different purposes, they are the same products.

Here are some similarities between medical and recreational cannabis.


Both medical and recreational cannabis are derived from the Cannabis sativa plant. The plant undergoes a cultivation process and can be processed into various products, including extracts, edibles, and topicals.


The effects of medical and recreational cannabis are the same and depend on the cannabinoid levels of the product. Products rich in delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) produce an intoxicating high that makes users feel euphoric.

Cannabidiol (CBD) is the second-most common compound in the plant. Hemp plants are a variety of cannabis that must legally contain less than 0.3% THC. They are rich in CBD.

CBD does not produce a high like THC. Instead, it is known for producing relaxing effects. You get many of the same health benefits of THC without the high.

Side Effects

Medical and recreational cannabis is generally safe but may produce mild side effects and interact with certain medications.

Side effects of THC may include dry mouth, red eyes, delayed reactions, altered perception of time, motor control problems, increased heart rate, and increased anxiety (in high doses).

Side effects of CBD are not as common but may include diarrhea, fatigue, and appetite loss.

Consult with your doctor before using any cannabis product.


Medical and recreational cannabis is available in various forms*, including:

  • Flower
  • Edibles
  • Extracts
  • Vape Cartridges
  • Topicals
  • Tinctures

*Although medical and recreational cannabis may come in similar forms, some state regulations may prohibit certain forms. We’ll discuss this in the section below.

What Is the Difference Between Medical and Recreational Cannabis?

Medical and recreational cannabis products may look the same on the outside, but they are regulated and used differently.

Here are some differences between medical and recreational cannabis.


Medical cannabis programs allow patients over 18 to register as medical cannabis users as long as they have a doctor’s recommendation. Minors may also participate in the medical cannabis program through a designated caregiver (parent or legal guardian).

Recreational cannabis users must be over 21 to buy cannabis. 


Taxes vary by cannabis program. In some cases, medical cannabis users do not have to pay the excise tax paid by recreational cannabis consumers.


In some states, recreational cannabis dispensaries must sell products with lower potencies than medical dispensaries. Higher potencies are intended to provide significant therapeutic relief.

Possession and Purchasing Limit

Medical cannabis patients may often have higher possession and purchasing limits than recreational users to provide sufficient relief.

Home Cultivation Limit

Medical cannabis users may have higher cannabis cultivation limits than recreational users.


Not all medical cannabis states allow every product type. In some cases, smokable cannabis may be prohibited or only accessible to adults, not minors.

Medical Card

Recreational cannabis purchases do not require a medical recommendation or card. Medical cannabis products do require a doctor’s recommendation. Medical card application fees vary by state.

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In medical cannabis programs, registered patients may use a caregiver to help them buy or grow cannabis. Caregiver requirements vary by state.


At the moment, there are far more states that have legalized medical cannabis than states with recreational cannabis laws.

FAQs About Medical and Recreational Cannabis

Is Medical or Recreational Cannabis Legal in the U.S.?

No, cannabis is federally illegal. Cannabis is a Schedule I substance with no medicinal value and a high risk for abuse. However, the 2018 Farm Bill legalized industrial hemp production of plants with less than 0.3% THC.

Which Is Better: Medical or Recreational Cannabis?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer. The best type of cannabis for you depends on your specific needs. Are you looking to relieve a medical condition or symptom? Do you want to consume cannabis to wind down after work? 

Consider the differences and similarities (listed above) between medical and recreational cannabis to determine which one is best for you.

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