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Medical Marijuana vs. Recreational: Understanding the Similarities and Differences

While medical marijuana and recreational marijuana menus often overlap in terms of products, there are distinct differences between the two programs. In this guide, we’ll explain everything you need to know about both the similarities and differences between medical marijuana and recreational marijuana, including:

  • What is Medical Marijuana?
  • What is Recreational Marijuana?
  • What’s the Difference Between Medical and Recreational Marijuana Programs?
  • Why Do Some States Have Both Medical and Recreational Marijuana?
  • What Are Medical vs Recreational Prices?
  • Med vs Rec FAQs

What is Medical Marijuana?

Medical marijuana is cannabis sold exclusively to patients who have a medical marijuana card. To get the 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 cannabis, also called Adult-Use, is any cannabis sold, grown, or consumed by residents of a state that has specifically legalized its consumption and sale. In most states, recreational cannabis can also be purchased by out-of-state visitors, though their possession limits may differ from residents. 

Whether a resident or out of state, recreational marijuana can only be purchased by adults 21 or older with a valid ID who meet the state’s qualifications for marijuana sales.

What’s the Difference Between Medical and Recreational Marijuana Programs?

The biggest difference between medical and recreational marijuana programs is their legal classification. While both programs are centered around our favorite plant, they fall into two different categories: doctor-prescribed and adult-use only. 

Medical marijuana patients must follow the laws set by the state to obtain a doctor-prescribed medical marijuana card in order to purchase and consume medical marijuana for their condition. Recreational marijuana consumers make their purchases purely for enjoyment and, in most cases, only need to have a valid ID and be 21 or older.

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. 

What Are Medical vs Recreational Prices?

There are three things that affect the cost of marijuana: the quality, the type of product (ie, concentrates versus flower), and the taxes. While medical and recreational marijuana costs are typically the same for quality and type, they can be drastically different when it comes to taxes. 

Recreational marijuana consumers in some states can end up paying sales tax, local tax, and excise tax in addition to the price of their product. These taxes can add up, like in the case of California, to as much as 38%. 

For medical marijuana patients, the taxes are often much lower or even non-existent. For example, medical marijuana card holders in California only pay between 15-20% depending on where they live. In states like Massachusetts, Vermont, Utah and South Dakota, medical marijuana purchases have zero taxes applied to them.

Answering FAQs about Recreational vs Medical Marijuana

Because we’re still waiting for federal marijuana legalization, we get a lot of questions about what the rules are in the states where we operate. Here are some of our most frequently asked and answered questions about recreational and medical cannabis:

How much recreational cannabis can I posses?
Possession laws vary from state to state where recreational cannabis is legal. Your best bet is to review the rules for that state to learn what they allow residents and non-residents—because sometimes it’s different for cannabis tourists—to purchase. When in doubt, you can also visit a dispensary if you’re over 21 and have a valid ID. The budtenders there will be able to tell you how much you can purchase. 

Are medical marijuana products different from recreational marijuana products?
There are two significant differences between medical marijuana and recreational marijuana products: cost and potency. When it comes to cost, some states offer tax incentives or even tax exemptions to medical marijuana cardholders that recreational marijuana consumers do not get. Additionally, many medical marijuana patients look for menus that include cannabis products with lower THC potency or higher THC-to-CBD ratios. This allows them to consume cannabis for their condition while still being able to perform their day-to-day activities.

Why do medical and recreational marijuana rules vary by state?
It’s no secret that state and federal marijuana regulations simply aren’t aligned (yet). This means that until the federal government legalizes cannabis, every state is allowed to make its own decision about how they will enforce the purchase of marijuana within their borders.

Can I use my medical cannabis card in another state?
Yes, sometimes. Some states, like Nevada, offer reciprocity, the equal exchange of benefits between two states. This means that if you have a medical marijuana card in California, you can use it in Nevada. California, however, does not offer reciprocity, so if you’re traveling from Nevada, you cannot purchase marijuana in California as a medical marijuana patient. If you’re curious if the state you’re traveling to offers reciprocity, we recommend checking the marijuana laws in that state first. 

Purchasing Medical Marijuana or Recreational Marijuana

The most important thing you can do before purchasing medical marijuana or recreational marijuana is know the rules in your state or the state you’re visiting. This will give you a good idea of what you can purchase, how much you can purchase, and in the case of medical marijuana patients, if you can purchase in a different state using your medical marijuana card. Of course, if you have questions, you can ask the cannabis experts when you​​​​​​​ visit a dispensary. They will be able to help you navigate the laws you’ll need to follow to consume your marijuana. 

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