Medical vs. Recreational Marijuana – What’s the Difference?


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What are the differences between medical and recreational (adult use) cannabis?  Do they differ structurally, or just legally? Which state license is easiest to obtain?

“A lot of people [combine] recreational with medicinal use, but there are clear differences. With medical marijuana, you’re looking for, in most cases, a relatively short effect of the material that you’re consuming. It’s all about what is in the cannabis you are consuming, and the goal you have in mind.”

Dr. David Bearman, Physician & Marijuana Expert

User Intent & CBD/THC Content:

The most obvious factor distinguishing the two categories of cannabis is intent. For example, people who use marijuana recreationally often smoke it to achieve a high, rather than to ease chronic pain or other conditions. 

THC is the mind-altering chemical in marijuana primarily responsible for producing euphoria. THC-based medications are often used to increase appetite and reduce nausea. The chemical is also used to decrease pain, inflammation and muscle control problems. That being said, not all chemicals in marijuana produce a euphoric effect. Many medical cannabis patients use the drug only for its therapeutic properties, aiming to minimize marijuana’s side effects, including the high. This is where cannabidiol, or CBD, is significant.

Cannabidiol is non-psychoactive: it does not have mind-altering effects. It also minimizes the euphoric effects of marijuana caused by THC. CBD can be useful in reducing pain and inflammation, as well as controlling epileptic seizures. It may also be effective in treating mental illness or addiction, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 

Recreational marijuana generally contains high levels of THC and lower levels of CBD. Medicinal marijuana is often rich in CBD, with less or no THC. Therefore, many medical marijuana users will feel the therapeutic effects without a high.


To state that all medical marijuana is of higher quality than all recreational cannabis would be incorrect. Recreational cannabis growers, producers, and manufacturers have recently taken both quality and potency standards to their highest levels to date. As competition rises, the recreational industry is having to step up product quality.

Often, recreational cannabis products are not subject to the same scrutiny and testing processes as medical marijuana. In order for a medical cannabis product to be sold in a licensed dispensary, it must be extensively tested and verified as high quality. Advertised potency levels of THC and CBD, and product composition may be more accurate on medical cannabis packaging.

This does not necessarily mean recreational cannabis is inferior, but generally speaking, approved medical cannabis products are of more consistent quality.


The two categories of marijuana will be taxed differently when being sold in Michigan. Both are subject to the state’s 6% sales tax, but recreational marijuana will also carry a 10% excise tax while medical marijuana has no excise tax.

License & Permit Pricing:

Under state law designed to ensure that the businesses will succeed, medical marijuana applicants have to prove that they have assets worth $150,000 to $500,000, depending on the license, to qualify for an industry license. In comparison, the recreational market rules don’t have any capitalization requirements. Michigan officials believe this will open up the market, allowing people who haven’t been able to qualify so far, to get a license. 

Application fees for both the state ($6,000) and local communities ($5,000), as well as regulatory assessments of $66,000, are charged for medical marijuana licenses. The comparable regulatory assessments for the recreational market are still $6,000 for the application fee, but the fees for different categories of licenses range from just $1,000, up to $40,000. The fee amount depends on the license type, with the largest grow and processor licensees charged $40,000, and the smaller businesses being charged $1,000.


There are several differences in ease of access to recreational and medical cannabis. First of all, you must have a physician’s recommendation in order to purchase medical marijuana. 

You must have a qualifying physical condition in order to get a medical marijuana recommendation, and it must be renewed regularly. Recreational marijuana, on the other hand, can be bought by anyone over the age of 21. No medical card is required.

You can buy medical marijuana from a regulated dispensary showing your state-issued medical marijuana card. You can also easily buy recreational cannabis from a dispensary by showing identification proving you are over 21 years of age.

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

The actual shopping experience itself is similar, although recreational dispensaries are not legally allowed to provide medical advice. There are many dual-licensed stores that can supply both recreational and medical products, but the majority hold either one license or the other. Product availability also tends to be 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.

Workplace Tolerance:

Regardless of the legal status of cannabis in a growing number of states, many employers continue to maintain a zero-tolerance policy regarding cannabis use. Even if recreational cannabis users exclusively consume cannabis in their free time, off the clock, and away from their employer’s premises, they can still be disciplined or terminated for breaching company policy.  Employers across the United States also have the legal right to discipline or fire medical cannabis users. Again, even if they only consume medical cannabis on their private property and on their own time.

Tolerance for medical cannabis use by employees seems to be expanding.  While recreational cannabis users are being fired for their lifestyle choices, terminations on the grounds of medical cannabis use are becoming less common. 

The variation between recreational and medical cannabis is slowly but surely being acknowledged. It is important to recognize the difference. Stay informed, so you can decide which product is best for you, or which business opportunities suit your needs. 

Bricks + Mortar Cannabis specializes in sales of both Medical and Recreational marijuana facilities. Click Here to check out our latest listings!

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