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Medical Marijuana Vs. Recreational; What’s The Difference?

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The difference between medical marijuana and recreational marijuana is that the purchase and consumption of medical marijuana requires a healthcare practitioner’s recommendation for a medical condition. Recreational marijuana, on the other hand, is a bit more flexible. In this guide, we’ll explain:

  • What Is Medical Marijuana?
  • What Is Recreational Marijuana?
  • How Are Medical And Recreational Marijuana Programs Different?
  • Why Do Some States Have Both Medical And Recreational Marijuana Programs?
  • Is Marijuana Legal At The Federal Level?
  • What Defines A Recreational Drug?

What is Medical Marijuana?

Medical marijuana states only allow the sale of cannabis products to patients who have a medical marijuana card in that state. To get a medical marijuana card, patients must first consult with a medical practitioner who is certified by the state to recommend cannabis. This healthcare provider will evaluate the patient’s condition and establish whether they qualify. From there, the application process varies by state, but generally includes steps like proving residency and (if applicable) designating caregivers. 

Check out our guides to getting a medical cannabis card in Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

What is Recreational Marijuana?

Recreational - also called Adult-Use - is when a state allows residents and visitors over the age of 21 to purchase cannabis products from licensed cannabis dispensaries. This is only allowed in states that have specifically legalized the consumption and sale of recreational marijuana. 

So which states allow consumption of recreational marijuana? Washington and Colorado were the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Every year, more and more states are legalizing both recreational and medicinal cannabis use. 

How Are Medical and Recreational Marijuana Programs Different?

Medical marijuana and recreational marijuana programs differ in one important way: 

  • Medical Cannabis: Medical marijuana patients must have a state-issued medical marijuana card that they receive through a state-governed qualification process with a licensed physician. 
  • Recreational Cannabis: Recreational marijuana programs allow state residents and visitors over the age of 21 to purchase cannabis products from a state-licensed dispensary. In some states, visitors are also able to purchase cannabis products. 

Why Do Some States Have Both Medical and Recreational Marijuana Programs?

States that have legalized recreational cannabis continue their medical program to best serve their patients’ needs, such as expanded operating hours to allow patients to avoid crowds. Additional reasons states have separate programs include:

  • Lower Sales Tax: Recreational customers can pay anywhere from 10 - 30% in what’s referred to as an excise tax. However, medical marijuana purchases have a much lower tax than recreational purchases, with some states not charging sales tax at all. 
  • Medical-Only Dispensaries: Depending on the state, some dispensaries offer medical-only locations or medical-only hours. This allows for expanded product offerings and additional staff who can assist medical patients.
  • Differences in Age Restrictions: Only adults over the age of 21 can purchase cannabis products in recreational-use states. However, in some states, qualified patients under the age of 21 are able to consume medical marijuana products for specific conditions, with the help of the primary caregiver. 

Why Do Rules Vary By State? 

Much has changed since legalization began, but each state has its own considerations when preparing to offer new programs. When New York announced it would legalize recreational marijuana, Verilife’s New York dispensaries received same-day visits from hopeful buyers thinking the new law took effect the same day. However, the actual process of marijuana legalization and in-store recreational sales can take years for states to complete. 

Due to the Controlled Substances Act, cannabis is still considered a Schedule I drug and not nationally legal. That’s why marijuana laws - everything from the ways dispensaries advertise to the types of cannabis products sold - are subject to state examination and approval.

Purchasing Medical Marijuana or Recreational Marijuana

Whether purchasing medical marijuana or recreational marijuana, you will need to meet the requirements of your state or the state you’re visiting. Once qualified, you can visit a dispensary to find the marijuana products you need. 


Recreational Cannabis is not available in all states. Cannabis is for medical use only and may only be used by certified patients in Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania. State laws impact what dispensaries can and can’t sell to recreational customers and medical marijuana patients. Not every type of product, consumption method, dosage form, or potency mentioned on this blog will be permitted in all locations.

This website contains cannabis information and is restricted to individuals 21 years of age or older. Please confirm your age:

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