It wasn’t until 2012 that Washington State and Colorado introduced America’s first legal recreational cannabis bills. Prior to this, the only cannabis available legally in North America was medical marijuana. Dozens of states now permit the sale and consumption of medical cannabis for qualifying conditions, while a total of 11 states have so far legalized recreational cannabis.

But what, if anything, is the difference between recreational and medical cannabis? Aside from the fact that the two product classifications are used for entirely different reasons, are there any distinguishable differences between medical marijuana and recreational cannabis?

More importantly, is there still any real reason to go through the process of applying for a medical cannabis card, if you’re able to qualify for one?

Medical vs. Recreational Cannabis: Availability

Perhaps the biggest and most important difference between recreational and medical cannabis lies in product availability. While just 11 states now permit the sale and consumption of cannabis for recreational purposes, more than 30 states have introduced legal medical cannabis legislation. This means that those who qualify for a medical cannabis card have much broader and more convenient access to cannabis than their recreational counterparts.

The actual shopping experience itself is relatively similar, though recreational dispensaries are forbidden from providing medical advice. There are some dual-licensed stores that can serve both recreational and medical customers, but the and vast majority hold one licence or the other – recreational or medical.  Product availability also tends to be very similar from one store to the next, though some states restrict the sale and use of certain cannabis products for medical use.

For example, there are jurisdictions where cannabis edibles are legal, but patients are forbidden from smoking cannabis flowers in the traditional sense.

Medical Patient Privileges by State

Therapeutic cannabis policy varies significantly from one North American state to the next. While some make it unnecessarily difficult for qualifying patients to obtain medical cannabis, others throw various perks and privileges at those who carry medical cannabis cards. Examples of which include the following:

  • Lower taxes and cheaper products
  • Higher THC content and potency
  • Reduced restrictions on purchase quantities
  • Additional home growing privileges
  • Access to cannabis for qualified minors

The perks and privileges afforded to medical cannabis users are granted on the basis of their cannabis use being mandatory, rather than a simple lifestyle choice. As the vast majority of medical cannabis patients use marijuana to alleviate their symptoms – rather than getting high – they can access certain privileges that are not available to recreational cannabis users.

Workplace Tolerance

Irrespective of the legal status of cannabis in a growing number of North American territories, many employers continue to adopt a zero-tolerance policy to cannabis use. Even if recreational cannabis users exclusively consume cannabis in their free time and away from their employer’s premises, they can still technically be disciplined or even fired for breaching company policy.  Remarkably, employers across the United States also have the legal right to discipline or terminate the contracts of medical cannabis users. Again, even if they consume therapeutic cannabis exclusively in their own time and on their private property.

However, it’s comparatively rare for any major employer to enforce the latter of the two policies. The important differences between recreational and medical cannabis consumption are slowly but surely being acknowledged, resulting in more widespread tolerance for medical cannabis use by American workers.  Recreational cannabis users are being fired left, right and centre for their lifestyle choices – terminations on the grounds of medical cannabis use are far less common.

Product Quality

To state outright that all forms of medical cannabis are of superior quality to all forms of recreational cannabis would be misguided. Increasingly, recreational cannabis producers and product manufacturers have taken both quality and potency standards to their highest levels to date. As competition grows among growers, producers and manufacturers, the recreational industry is having to collectively up its game to remain competitive.

However, it’s also true to say that recreational cannabis products are not subject to the same scrutiny and extensive testing processes as their medical counterparts. In order for a medical cannabis product to appear in a licensed dispensary, it must have been extensively tested and verified as of the highest possible quality. In addition, advertised potency levels (THC/CBD) and general products composition indications may be more accurate where therapeutic cannabis is concerned.

It’s not to say that recreational cannabis is inferior – it’s more a case of approved medical cannabis products being of more consistent quality.

So…Should I Get a Medical Cannabis Card?

Millions of therapeutic cannabis users across the United States self-medicate with recreational cannabis. Rather than going through the process of obtaining a medical cannabis card, they simply buy and consume the cannabis they need via standard commercial dispensaries. A popular and viable option, but one that nonetheless sidesteps the potential benefits of getting a medical cannabis card.

Irrespective of the costs and complications involved, the benefits of carrying a medical cannabis card far outweigh the initial upheaval. Examples of which include:

  • Greater accessibility.  Why limit yourself exclusively to recreational cannabis stores, when you could also shop at medical cannabis dispensaries?
  • Lower prices.  Though not always the case, you could save a small fortune by taking advantage of lower-priced medical cannabis, which isn’t subject to such heavy taxation.
  • Consistent quality. As mentioned above, medical cannabis products are subject to much heavy scrutiny and testing than their recreational counterparts.
  • Higher purchase limits. Depending on the nature of your condition and your requirements, you may be permitted to buy significantly greater quantities of cannabis with a medical marijuana card.
  • Expert advice.  The medical advice you need cannot (or should not) be accessed in a typical commercial cannabis dispensary. Where medical cannabis is concerned, it’s important to direct your questions and concerns exclusively at licensed medical dispensary workers.

In a nutshell, therefore, the answer is yes – you should get a medical cannabis card, if you’re able to qualify for one. Likewise, the answer to the initial question is also yes – there are differences between recreational and medical cannabis.