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What’s the Difference Between Recreational and Medical Marijuana?

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In 2012, Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational use, making them the first two states to do so. Every year, more and more states are legalizing both recreational and medicinal cannabis use, but when and how that happens can be confusing to the everyday consumer. What changes and what are the limitations that still exist?

The difference between legal medical marijuana and legal (adult-use) recreational marijuana varies by state, but it can largely be explained by the purpose for which it’s being used and the method it’s obtained.

Recreational marijuana states - also known as adult-use states - allow the use of marijuana for adults over the age of 21, purchased at a state-approved and -licensed dispensary. Medical marijuana states only allow the use and sale of cannabis products to patients who have a medical marijuana card in that state. This requires an appointment with a certified practitioner who will evaluate pre-existing conditions and establish whether the patient qualifies in that state. Once a patient is approved, they will register with the state and pay the necessary fees to receive a medical marijuana card.

Why Do Some States Have Both Programs?

You may be wondering why states still offer medical marijuana programs if recreational use is legal. It’s important to remember that cannabis use varies from person to person, specifically when it comes to use for certain medical conditions. Recreational states maintain separate medical programs to better cater to these patients’ needs.

  • 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, persons under the age of 21 are able to use 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 can take years for states to complete.

Because the 1970 Controlled Substances Act still holds that marijuana is illegal at the federal level, marijuana laws - everything from the ways dispensaries advertise to the types of cannabis products sold - are subject to state examination and approval.

Staff at Verilife dispensaries can provide you with more information about local cannabis laws and how to ensure your purchases are consumed legally and responsibly.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not considered legal advice on any subject matter. By viewing this article, the reader understands there is no attorney-client relationship between the reader and the article publisher. The article should not be used as a substitute for legal advice from a licensed professional attorney, and readers are urged to consult their own legal counsel on any specific legal questions concerning a specific situation.

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

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