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Medical Marijuana Patients vs. Recreational Customers

September 27, 2021


From ancient civilizations, the use of cannabis has grown tremendously in recent years, becoming popular among young and adults. With time, marijuana has also become a source of relief against serious health conditions, it is an alternative form of medication. But as many researchers would say: not all cannabis serves equal purposes. In fact, although they derive from the same plant source, recreational and medical marijuana present very distinctive features and thus can be used for different purposes. 

What Is “Regular” Marijuana? 

Marijuana is considered “regular” when it is used for recreational purposes. Compared to medical marijuana, recreational cannabis is aimed at specific medical conditions, and it does not need a medical justification. However, state laws may limit the possession quantity or the age required to buy it. The strains of recreational marijuana contain high tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which produces the common psychoactive effects associated with the plant.

One of the issues with recreational cannabis  is that it is poorly regulated, as more attention is given to medical marijuana. Therefore, some producers do not run the necessary lab tests or do not obtain the required lab verification, thus compromising the purity of the product and its effects. Despite the lack of strict regulation, recreational marijuana can be unpredictable and problematic for a person’s health, so it should always be used with care and total awareness.

Marijuana Legalization Map 

To better clarify where marijuana stands from a legal point of view, a distinction should be made between recreational and medical, as states adopted different legal measures for each category.

medical marijuana, recreational cannabis, THC and CBD

Recreational Marijuana

Recreational cannabis was first legalized in 2012 by only two states, Colorado and Washington. As of June 2021, possessing and using marijuana for recreational purposes is legal in 18 states plus Washington, D.C.

medical marijuana, recreational cannabis, THC and CBD

Medical Marijuana

In 1996 medical marijuana became legal in the United States, specifically in the state of California. As of May 2021, medical marijuana is legal in 36 states and Washington, D.C. in Idaho, only one specific brand of CBD is legal and FDA-approved – Epidiolex.

medical marijuana, recreational cannabis, THC and CBD


What Is Medical Marijuana? 

Recent studies have discovered that marijuana can be highly beneficial for patients suffering from certain health conditions. This opened up the possibility of turning to cannabis-based products as an alternative medical treatment.

What distinguishes medical marijuana vs. recreational is the content of its strains. Medical dispensaries typically sell marijuana containing more cannabidiol (CBD). CBD strains do not induce psychoactive effects, which are typically associated with recreational cannabis. The purpose of medical marijuana is to treat certain diseases or conditions rather than simply to make the patient “high.” 

For marijuana to be considered “medical”, it needs to be prescribed exclusively to a state-qualified patient by a medical professional and sold by a specialized treatment center, or dispensary. Based on the patient’s needs and health condition, medical marijuana can be administered in various ways: 

  • Oils 
  • Patches
  • Creams 
  • Tinctures
  • Sprays 
  • Vaping
  • Suppositories 
  •  Edibles

medical marijuana, recreational cannabis, THC and CBD

Laws Governing Medical Cannabis vs. Recreational Marijuana 

What makes a person legally eligible to obtain marijuana?

The most significant distinction between the use of recreational marijuana vs. medical is in the laws governing their consumption. Although cultivating, distributing, and using marijuana is still considered a federal offense, things look quite different at the state level. A survey conducted in 2019 by the U.S. Census has shown that more than 141 million Americans live in a state where marijuana is legal. The first steps towards legalizing marijuana were taken in 2012 by several coastal states. Since then, more jurisdictions have set their own regulations and guidelines on the matter. Both medical cannabis and recreational have different legal restrictions, which vary from one state to the other. 


In Florida, owning more than 20g will be considered a felony and therefore subject to charge. However, this state has fully legalized medical marijuana: those with a qualifying condition are allowed up to 2.5 ounces of product, as long as a specialized doctor provides a medical cannabis recommendation.


Georgia is a very restrictive state regarding cannabis regulations. Possessing more than 1 ounce of product leads to a felony charge. The only exception came with HB 324, a state law authorizing CBD oil exclusively for medical purposes, as long as it contains less than 5% THC. Despite law HB 324, it is still very difficult to obtain approval for low-THC oil purchases, which is only granted for specific medical conditions such as Autism, Cancer, Parkinson’s, PTSD, Sickle Cell Disease, Tourette’s Syndrome, and Multiple Sclerosis.


Unlike Florida and Georgia, Illinois  fully legalized marijuana as of January 1, 2020. Users aged 21 or above can possess up to 5g of concentrated cannabis or 30g of raw product.

Eligible Medical Conditions

On a general rule, obtaining a medical marijuana prescription is contingent upon three conditions:

  1. A person must be at least 18 years old
  2. A person’s health condition must be among those qualified for treatment
  3. A person must be able to show a valid medical marijuana card

Although research on marijuana-based medicine is still ongoing, early results showed that a wide range of medical conditions would be eligible for treatment; from Alzheimer’s disease and appetite loss to muscle spasms and seizures. In 2018, Epidiolex was one of the first cannabidiols to be approved by the FDA to treat two severe forms of epilepsy, Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. In the case of epilepsy in young children, medical marijuana should be administered by the parents upon obtaining the necessary permission to use it. 

Currently, the long-term efficacy of medical marijuana is not fully proven. However, it has been found that if grown correctly and administered in measured doses, its use can lead to positive results. A large Swiss study showed that marijuana-based medications treated cancer-related nausea much better than traditional anti-nausea drugs. On the Multiple Sclerosis front, a U.K. study of 66 patients affected with M.S. has found that 42 percent experienced pain relief after taking Sativex, a well-known oral spray containing CBD. Lastly, primary care physicians can prescribe cannabis to treat arthritis, migraine, and glaucoma.    

medical marijuana, recreational cannabis, THC and CBD

How Is Recreational Marijuana Different? 

One of the essential characteristics of recreational marijuana is the level of THC, or Tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis. THC creates the “high” effect that is common among recreational cannabis, bringing a more profound sense of enjoyment than medical marijuana. 

If you are more than 21 and live in a state where recreational marijuana is legal, you can obtain it easily at a dispensary by simply showing your driver’s license. You can also grow marijuana yourself  in these states – assuming your age meets the requirements. Despite the numerous benefits, it is important to remember that recreational marijuana may lead to unexpected health risks or turn into a cannabis use disorder. Therefore it should be taken moderately.

Medical Marijuana: Recommendation Required 

Medical marijuana can only be obtained upon providing proof of an existing medical condition. Furthermore, your condition must qualify for drug usage. For instance, Florida’s state law allows the issuance of medical recommendations only if patients suffer from certain conditions such as ALS, Cancer, Crohn’s Disease, Glaucoma, MS, or Parkinson’s. 

Note that doctors are not allowed to “prescribe” marijuana because it is illegal on a federal level. Instead, they can “recommend” it for certain qualifying conditions. Most marijuana recommendations are not made by the patient’s usual physician but by doctors who specialize in evaluating patients for medical marijuana. After obtaining their recommendation, patients can visit a medical cannabis dispensary and show their marijuana I.D. card to buy a product they need. 

Recreational Marijuana: No Recommendation Required 

A person does not need a recommendation for recreational marijuana – they can simply enter a dispensary and buy the product, as long as it is legal in that state and they are over the required minimum age. Only licensed recreational stores can make medical recommendations, though most adult-use cannabis dispensaries are not allowed to do so. 

Another significant contrast between medical marijuana vs. recreational is that the latter does not require a medical card. In states like California and Colorado, recreational users only need to show a valid photo I.D. to obtain the product directly from the dispensary. Those aged 21 years or more can purchase recreational marijuana in various forms, from flowers to edibles to concentrates such as shatter, vape cartridges, or tinctures.

Medical vs. Recreational: Age limitations 

Another differentiating aspect of medical marijuana vs. recreational relates to the users’ age. For instance, medical cannabis cannot be bought and used by customers below 18 years of age. The rules are different for recreational users, who cannot purchase marijuana until they reach 21 and above.

At first, the different age limit between the two categories leads to the conclusion that medical patients have an advantage over recreational users since they can access marijuana at a younger age. However, there is a much deeper reason why one must be above 21 years to use recreational cannabis. This age restriction has been set based on brain science since the human brain grows and develops until the mid-20s. Ample research has shown that the THC contained in regular marijuana can seriously impact a person’s cognitive function and increase the risk of drug abuse and addiction. Setting the limit to 21 years and above minimizes the risk that people come in contact with recreational cannabis at a young age.

Medical vs. Recreational: Purchase And Possession Limits

Aside from the age limit, marijuana is highly regulated in the quantity that can be purchased and possessed. Each state sets up specific rules on how much cannabis one can buy at one time and the total weight that a person can possess. The main reason for such limits is to minimize the risk of drug abuse or product diversion into the illicit market. It is also a way to ensure all customers do not own more than the state-specified amount of marijuana products, which may result in heavy fines.

Below are some purchase and possession limits by the states as of September 2021:


Medical: up to 2.5 oz.

Recreational: up to 1 oz, but not more than 5g of marijuana concentrate.


Medical: up to 2.5 oz.

Recreational: up to 2.5 oz; within the person’s residence, up to 10 oz.

New York

Medical: up to 60 days of prescribed supply dosage; up to 5 lbs. within a private residence.

Recreational: up to 3 oz of cannabis and 24 grams of concentrated cannabis; up to 5 lbs. within a private residence.

Medical vs. Recreational: THC And CBD Levels 

THC and CBD are the well-known chemical compounds found in cannabis plants. Based on their content level, marijuana is classified as recreational or medical. On the one hand, recreational marijuana contains elevated THC, responsible for making users feel “high” and euphoric. On the other hand, medical cannabis is known for the effects of CBD, its main component, which has proven excellent against several health conditions. Cannabidiol is known for its soothing and calming effects, and it can also be found in oil-based products and edibles.

Due to the heavy alteration between THC and CBD levels, it is even more important to follow doctors’ orders when consuming marijuana-based products – elevated THC levels produce psychoactive effects that may be harmful to medical patients. Therefore, a person who suffers from chronic pain would find CBD very beneficial without the unnecessary “high” feeling. When taking a drug medicinally, the patient expects to regain energy. The healing effects of CBD make this compound much more medically appealing than recreational THC. Nevertheless, the difference in active ingredients is a clear indication that the use of marijuana depends heavily on the individual’s needs.  

Medical vs. Recreational: Legal Issues 

The first thing to clarify about the legal implication of marijuana is that it is illegal on a federal level. Whether medical or recreational, it is federally unlawful to buy and use cannabis. However, states have taken different steps towards legalizing marijuana, with each state setting up its own policies, limitations, and regulations. 

When it comes to marijuana, rules do not only vary from one state to state, but they also depend on whether it is meant for medical patients or recreational users. More emphasis is placed on medical marijuana, as patients need much higher quantities of product to counteract the severity of their health condition. Yet even cannabis that is used for medical purposes is often limited to sprays and oils, despite being legal in 33 states. 

Medical vs. Recreational: Variety Of Purpose 

Versatility is a key comparing factor between medical and recreational cannabis use. Products that offer multiple benefits are usually preferred to others with fewer advantages, and the same thing can be said about marijuana. In this regard, medical marijuana is considered much more versatile because it can be used safely by adults, the elderly, and, in many states, even minors. The high concentration of CBD can be used to alleviate multiple health conditions. 

On the flipped side, recreational cannabis is much more limited. Its main purpose is purely recreational, as people use it for personal satisfaction or when they are in social settings. What makes recreational marijuana attractive is the psychoactive effect of the THC. Still, it is only limited to those who are legally allowed to purchase it and handle the mental and physical effects of getting “high.” Therefore, while recreational cannabis  is limited to a specific age group, medical cannabis can be accessed by a wider range of people, thus being safer and less risky.

Medical vs. Recreational: The Difference In Shopping Experiences 

Shopping for marijuana is not the same nationwide, but it varies depending on location and type of product. For instance, patients in need of medical cannabis are required to show a photo I.D. to confirm their age and proof of authorization to buy marijuana in the form of a medical card. In addition, medical dispensaries tend to have a waiting room where customers wait for their turn – only one customer is allowed at a time for privacy purposes. The best shopping solution for medical cannabis is to buy it from a dual-licensed dispensary, where budtenders are better prepared to answer patient-related questions.

Users of recreational marijuana go through a different shopping experience compared to medical patients. They do not need any medical recommendation or medical cannabis card – they can buy their products upon showing a photo I.D. to validate their age. Contrary to medical marijuana sellers, who undergo training and preparation, recreational budtenders are not equipped to provide medical advice. Some dispensaries are not even permitted to provide medical guidance to customers. In most cases, both medical and recreational dispensaries accept only cash or debit cards as a form of payment. It is not common to find a location that allows credit cards since not many banking services are set up for cannabis-related transactions.

Medical vs. Recreational: License & Permit Pricing 

Starting a marijuana business is not that easy – or affordable as one may think. First of all, the business documentation and licensing depend on the type of activity you will conduct and what state your main operation will take place in. With regards to license application fees, one might expect to spend about $5,000 just to file the main application, whereas to open a dispensary, the annual license fee can range between $1000 and $10,000. Medical marijuana applicants must submit proof of assets ranging between $150,000 and $500,000 – the amount will depend on the license type. On the other hand, the Michigan recreational market does not have any capitalization requirements.

Ultimately, state laws have the last word on who should cultivate or sell marijuana and under what conditions. Nevertheless,  federal law prohibits any activity associated with marijuana, whether it is recreational use, medical purchase, cultivation, or sale. Any action related to cannabis can be prosecuted at the federal level. There is a way to minimize this risk. It is important to follow state and local rules closely, avoid any regulations breach and abide by all requirements accordingly.

Medical vs. Recreational: Accessibility 

Medical marijuana has gained much attention due to several legal changes at the state level, which has improved its availability, expanded product accessibility, and raised more curiosity among researchers. The extent of accessibility to recreational marijuana is different from medical cannabis. 

The most evident difference is that while only 11 states allow the sale and consumption of recreational cannabis, more than 30 have approved legislation in favor of medical marijuana, sharply reducing the availability of recreational dispensaries across the country. Furthermore, those who qualify for a medical marijuana card will be able to access  dispensaries much easier than recreational users. On the other hand, the sales of recreational marijuana tend to be more profitable since anyone over the age limit and within the states where this is available can easily purchase it. This is also due to the higher tax rate that recreational users must pay compared to medical patients, who are not subjects to the same tax deductions.

Medical vs. Recreational: Workplace Tolerance 

Although the legal status of cannabis is increasingly growing across the United States, many companies are still not tolerant towards cannabis use in the workplace. Some employers may even terminate an employee for breaching company policy by using recreational cannabis. Surprisingly, employment termination based on medical marijuana use is becoming less common over time. While zero-tolerance is widely accepted against recreational marijuana use, there is more leniency towards medical patients.

As this article previously explained, medical marijuana can be prescribed for a wide range of qualifying health conditions, from cancer side effects to multiple sclerosis to seizures and nerve disorders, and more states are allowing medical use of cannabis in various forms. As a consequence, workplace policies are also becoming more tolerant towards medical marijuana in an attempt to not compromise the employee’s health status. Nevertheless, this is a subjective choice that depends entirely on the employer, as no law requires employers to tolerate drug use in the workplace. 

Medical vs. Recreational: The Product Options 

Depending on the state, product availability may differ. For instance, medical dispensaries may have more product options than recreational ones, or they may offer products with a higher level of cannabinoid than recreational stores. It is also possible that those with a medical cannabis card may have access to a wider range of options because their medical condition qualifies for more powerful products. In other cases, recreational dispensaries offer limited product types to prevent non-medical users from accessing strong cannabinoids that may damage their health. In place of these various measures, it is crucial to check a dispensary’s product line in advance, making sure they have what the customer is looking for.

Recreational And Medical Marijuana: Effects On The Human Body

The benefits and risks of marijuana on the human body are still the subject of intense research. Most people choose cannabis  to contribute to their well-being, relieve pain and increase their health, while others have experienced discomfort and uneasiness. Depending on how cannabis is injected into the body, its effects may onset within minutes (inhaling smoke) or even hours (eating or drinking edibles). Because of its increasing usage and widespread legalization, attention is being paid to the medicinal properties of cannabis and how they benefit the human body.

From reducing chemotherapy-driven nausea to treating epilepsy to improving the appetite of HIV/AIDS patients, the greatest benefits of cannabis derive from its CBD component, making medical marijuana more beneficial for severe health conditions. As for recreational marijuana, it was found that despite the pain relief properties of THC, abusing cannabis may lead to impaired judgment, memory problems, and a weakened immune system. On the other hand, it is also important to point out that the effects of medical cannabis may differ among patients, depending on their overall health, age, and physical and mental status. This is why using CBD strains should always be done with caution, following the necessary prescriptions and medical recommendations.

Recreational And Medical Cannabis: Marijuana Tax Exemptions

Taxes on marijuana purchases vary from one state to another. In states where both recreational and medical dispensaries are legal, medical cannabis is taxed at a lower rate, making it less expensive for customers. In some cases, additional taxes are levied on recreational cannabis products, exempting medical marijuana users from certain deductions. In Seattle, those who wish to purchase recreational cannabis must pay both state taxes (6.5%) and local/county taxes (3.6%) for a total tax rate of 10.1%. The same does not happen to qualified medical patients.

Both states and local municipalities apply taxes on marijuana based on three different criteria:

  • Weight: the total tax amount depends on the overall product weight.
  • Percentage: tax is calculated based on the purchase price, similar to traditional retail stores.
  • Potency: the amount of THC within the product affects the total tax amount. Currently, Illinois is the only state that taxes marijuana based on its THC (10% tax rate for a THC level of 35% or less, 25% tax rate if the THC level is more than 35%).

Medical vs. Recreational Cannabis: Which is Better? 

Although there are evident differences between medical marijuana and recreational, it is also true that their perception is highly subjective. In fact, in the world of cannabinoids, there is no “better” marijuana – it all depends on the user and their end goal rather than on the nature of the product itself. To assess whether medical cannabis is more efficient than recreational, the main thing to consider is the individual’s intention. Is your goal to “get high” and elevate your mind to a state of euphoria? Then high-THC recreational cannabis would be more suitable. Suppose you are simply looking for an alternative remedy to chronic pain or relief from an intense health condition. In that case, you should turn to the calming effects of medical marijuana’s CBD strains.


Across the United States, marijuana is changing in the eyes of the public and the law, becoming the “new normal” among patients and users. Despite the many differences between medical and recreational marijuana, the effects of drugs can vary from case to case, as they heavily depend on who uses them, how they are used, and in what amount. On the one hand, recreational users will look for products with high THC levels, while medical patients will always see cannabis as a therapeutic solution against their compromised health. But despite the numerous controversies surrounding marijuana use, Americans may expect notable changes soon, both legally and socially.