Dear Herb: What’s the difference between medical and recreational cannabis?

It's a question with social, political, economic and personal implications


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Dear Herb: What is the difference between medical marijuana and recreational marijuana? — Spot the Difference

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/06/2018 (1680 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Dear Herb: What is the difference between medical marijuana and recreational marijuana? — Spot the Difference

Dear Difference: On the one hand, I could argue there’s no difference between "medical marijuana" and "recreational marijuana" — at the end of the day, they’re both cannabis.

On the other hand, there are some significant differences between medical cannabis and recreational cannabis! Confusing, isn’t it?

Herb answers your questions about legal consumption and growing, the law, etiquette — you name it, he'll look into it.

To help explain, I called up Paul Armentano, the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in the U.S., whose ultimate goal is to legalize "the responsible use of marijuana by adults".

Armentano broke down the differences between medical marijuana and recreational marijuana across a few different categories:

  • A legal distinction: In many jurisdictions, including Canada today, doctor-recommended cannabis for medical use is legal while other cannabis use is illegal.
  • A political distinction: People around the world (and especially in various U.S. states) have distinguished between medical and non-medical cannabis for political purposes. For example, American cannabis advocates have often put medical marijuana legalization initiatives on state ballots, knowing that many people opposed to the idea of legalizing "recreational" marijuana might be more likely to vote in favour of "medical" marijuana on compassionate grounds.
  • An economic distinction: In some places where both medical and recreational cannabis are legal, registered medical cannabis users are exempt from certain taxes. (This won’t be the case in Canada after legalization, as the federal government plans to apply its excise tax to both medical and recreational marijuana. Canadian medical cannabis advocates are asking the federal government to rethink that plan, but so far they haven’t had any luck.)
  • A personal distinction: An individual’s motivations for using cannabis could be considered "medical," "recreational," or both.
  • An analytical distinction: Medical cannabis users might seek out specific strains of marijuana with properties suited to their needs, while recreational users might desire weed with other effects. At the same time, cannabis strains and products associated with "recreation" can absolutely be used for medical purposes, and vice-versa.

Armentano thinks society will distinguish between medical and recreational marijuana for some time to come.

"Because right now, the laws are written in such a way, oftentimes, to emphasize such a distinction," he said.

"And when we look at public support for marijuana reform among the general public, there still remains a disparity with regard to public support for regulating the use of marijuana versus regulating the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes."

The distinction between recreational and medical marijuana is a relatively modern phenomenon directly tied to cannabis prohibition, Armentano argues.

"If you go back historically, you saw human beings largely use cannabis for the same reasons they do today: for therapeutic purposes, for spiritual purposes, for social purposes," he said.

"It’s only been in the era of prohibition that society, and therefore the law, has begun to codify these legal distinctions based on consumers’ motivations."

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the term "recreational" itself can be somewhat controversial. (You never hear anyone talking about "recreational wine" or  "recreational cigarettes".) I’ve also heard "recreational" cannabis described as "non-medical" cannabis, "personal use" cannabis, "adult use" cannabis, or "social use" cannabis — personally, I like "adult use" because it implies cannabis is a substance for use by informed, consenting grown-ups.

Finally, not everyone even agrees there should be a distinction between "recreational" and "medical" cannabis. One loyal Dear Herb reader shared their perspective with me a few months ago:

"It’s impossible to use cannabis recreationally," they wrote. "You receive the full medical benefit each time. It doesn’t matter if you were just trying to have fun."

Thanks for the question, Difference. Until next week, may your recreation be medicinal and your medication be recreational.


Got a question about cannabis? Herb answers your questions about legal consumption and growing, the law, etiquette — you name it, he’ll look into it.

First, please check this list of questions already answered by Herb. Then, email, or to submit anonymously, fill out the form below. Please include an email address if you’d like to be notified when Herb answers your question:  


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