Top of a brown and blue paper shopping bag with handles

What is a Cannabis Dispensary?

If you’re new to cannabis and cannabis dispensaries, you might be wondering just what they are and what they do. You’re not alone. These shops are new for most people around the country, so they come with a lot of mystery and preconceived notions. 

In this guide, we’re going to dispel that mystery, ensuring you know the answers to these questions:

  • What is a Dispensary?
  • Medical vs Recreational Dispensaries: What’s the Difference?
  • Why is It Called a Dispensary?
  • How Do Cannabis Dispensaries Work?
  • Where Can I Find a Marijuana Dispensary?
  • What Kind of Products Can I Find at a Dispensary?
  • Who Can Shop at a Dispensary?
  • Answering FAQs About Dispensaries

What is a Dispensary?

A cannabis dispensary is a place where qualifying adults can purchase marijuana and marijuana-related products. Dispensaries can be labeled as medical marijuana dispensaries, recreational marijuana dispensaries, or both.

The first dispensary that ever opened was the San Francisco Buyers Club, a response to the AIDS epidemic that was tearing through California and other states during the 80s and 90s. For many of those afflicted with AIDS, marijuana offered relief for some of the excruciating symptoms of the disease, and because of this, activists worked hard to legalize cannabis. Eventually, because of their efforts, Proposition P was passed in 1991 which was the first step toward Proposition 215, the final act that legalized medical cannabis in California during the mid-90s. 

Medical vs Recreational Dispensaries: What’s the Difference?

Cannabis dispensaries have two different methods of operation: medical and recreational marijuana. Medical marijuana dispensaries stock cannabis that may help qualifying patients with certain conditions. Here, the budtenders, and sometimes even pharmacists, are knowledgeable about the different strains and products that may be the right choice for certain patients. To gain entry to a medical marijuana dispensary, you’ll need to have a medical marijuana card in most states.

Recreational marijuana dispensaries stock products with the single purpose of enjoyment. There, you’ll go to find the strains and cannabis products you love or want to try. You can also find the gear you need to stock up on in order to enjoy your marijuana. To gain entry to a recreational marijuana dispensary, you’ll need to have a state-issued ID that proves you’re 21 or older.

Why is It Called a Dispensary?

A dispensary is a place where a product is dispensed or provided to a customer. That is why cannabis dispensaries are called dispensaries—they provide quality cannabis to customers, whether they’re there for pure enjoyment or for medical reasons.

How Do Cannabis Dispensaries Work?

Cannabis dispensaries in the US, whether they’re medical or recreational marijuana dispensaries, operate under both state and local government regulations to provide cannabis and cannabis-related products to qualifying patients and customers. Dispensaries come in a variety of different shapes, styles, and sizes, and depending on your state, can offer different services, such as drive-thru purchases and delivery.

Where Can I Find a Marijuana Dispensary?

First, you’re going to need to know if your state has legalized some form of marijuana. If your state hasn’t (there are only 10 states that have zero marijuana legislation), then you’re going to need to invest in what’s called cannabis tourism. This means you travel to a different state, enjoy marijuana while you’re there, and then go home (without bringing any cannabis with you because that’s illegal.)

If your state has only legalized medical marijuana, then you’re probably required to have a medical marijuana card in order to purchase marijuana. To get one, you’ll need to understand your state’s rules to see if you can qualify for a card. Then, you’ll have to follow the process, which typically involves seeing a licensed healthcare provider in your state who agrees that medical marijuana may benefit you and your condition.

If your state has legalized medical and recreational marijuana, and you’re interested in medical marijuana, you’ll want to get a card too. If you don’t need medical marijuana and prefer just to enjoy marijuana, you’ll need to be at least 21 years old and have a state-issued ID to prove it. Then, you can find a recreational marijuana dispensary near you. We always recommend looking up your state’s rules before heading out. 

What Kind of Products Can I Find at a Dispensary?

It might surprise you when you walk into a dispensary, just how many options you have available. Whether you check out the menu online or head in to see it for yourself, here are just a few things you can expect to find when you take a look at your dispensary’s offerings:

Flower: If you love those big, colorful nuggets of marijuana, flower is the product for you. It can be used for a variety of purposes at home, from smoking to making edibles.

Concentrates: If you’re interested in high-potency products, concentrates are what you’re going to want to put your eyes on at the dispensary. There are all different types, including shatter, wax, budder, oil, and so much more.

Vapes: Prefer not to smell like smoke but still inhale your cannabis? Vapes will get the job done for you. You can find a number of different types of vapes, including vapes that have removable cartridges, vape pens that come with a cartridge, vapes that can handle flower, and more.

Topicals: For the cannabis enthusiast who wants a different sort of application, topicals can be a great option. While they typically won’t get THC into your bloodstream (unless it’s a transdermal patch), they can have localized uses on your skin.

Edibles: This classic form of cannabis needs no introduction, save that you should prepare yourself for a whole list of options. There are edible candies, gummies, lozenges, brownies, popcorn, and drinks, and that’s not even scratching the surface of all the edibles you can find at a dispensary.

Tinctures: Tinctures have a couple of different applications: they can be applied under the tongue or in the cheek, and they have concentrated cannabinoids that sink right through that thin skin and into the bloodstream. Some people also add a drop or two of tincture to their food, though this is going to lead to a much different experience than the traditional application.

Pre-Rolls: Love to smoke but prefer not to deal with the flower grinding or the rolling? Pre-rolls are the perfect product for you. These pre-rolled joints and blunts make enjoying your favorite marijuana cigarette easy.

Gear: Cannabis products are useless if you don’t have the gear you need to enjoy them. Stock up on pipes, rolling mats, dab mats, storage containers, scales to do marijuana measurements, and everything else you need to build your smoke kit.

Who Can Shop at a Dispensary?

The majority of states have legalized some form of cannabis, be it medical marijuana only or medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. If you’re in one of those states, you can only shop at a dispensary if you travel to a different state, and you have the necessary ID. 

For people living in the states where only medical marijuana is legal, you’ll need to have a state-issued medical marijuana card. For those cannabis enthusiasts that live in states where adult-use or recreational marijuana has been legalized, you’ll want to have a state-issued ID that proves you’re 21 or older.

Frequently Asked Questions

Dispensaries are like any retail shop—you go, get what you need, and head out to enjoy it. For new cannabis enthusiasts, it can still feel a little intimidating. To make it easier, here are a few things to know before your visit:

Can I go to a dispensary without a card?
While rules vary from state to state, most states require you to have an ID card that proves you are who you say you are. In many cases, a dispensary won’t let you come in if you don’t have a card.


How do I pay at a dispensary?
Because marijuana is not federally legal, you can’t use conventional payment methods like a credit card. Instead, you’re going to want to bring cash. Don’t stress too much if you forget this rule though. Most dispensaries have ATMs either in the shop or nearby to ensure you can get the cash you need to finalize your purchase. Typically, your budtender can let you know where to go if they don’t have an ATM in the shop.

Will my ID be scanned at the dispensary?
In most states, yes, but it’s for good reason. States have their own requirements for how much marijuana you can purchase and how old you need to be to make a purchase. Dispensaries have to follow these rules or they can lose their license to sell cannabis. By scanning your ID, they can ensure you’re 21 or older, and you’re not over purchasing cannabis.


Visiting a Dispensary

The first dispensary visit is always a little nerve-wracking. You might not be sure exactly what to do or even what products you’re looking for. Don’t worry. That’s why dispensaries have budtenders, the experts behind the counter who can talk about all aspects of cannabis consumption. If you’re not sure where to start, or what you should even try, they can share some ideas and even their own experiences. Just remember, everyone is unique, so what they get out of a product might be different from how you feel.

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.