The Difference Between Medical and Recreational Cannabis, and Which to Choose
While certainly a good way to relax, as long as humans have used it, cannabis has also been a wellness tool. From seeds discovered in ancient China to salves in ancient Egypt and spiritual smoothies in ancient India, the list is as curious as it is comprehensive, especially considering our modern outlook on the plant. Today, cannabis is either sold on the black market or hyper-regulated, and no matter why you use it, it’s harder to get than other (often much riskier) substances humans love.
As of this writing, 37 states permit medical cannabis sales, while 21 states allow adult use (also known as recreational cannabis). In those 21 latter states, both medical and recreational options are available. With this selection of purchase possibilities, which one is right for you? Why bother getting a medical card in a state where you can just hit up a recreational dispensary?
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It depends on how you use cannabis, but consider this: even if you reach for an edible to help you sleep or a topical for post-workout soreness, you’re using the plant for a presumed medical purpose. Just because you can freely buy the products to serve those needs doesn’t negate that fact. If you’re soothing something that ails you, whether mental or physical, consider reframing your ‘indulgence’ as a medical or wellness aid.
When to consider a medical cannabis card
Obtaining a medical cannabis card can be beneficial for a few reasons, the first of which is access—many states without adult use permit medical cards for a long list of less-serious conditions.
Another less obvious perk: sticking it to the man (sort of). Government-funded cannabis research is limited, making it difficult for the plant to be fully accepted in the mainstream. If you want to know precisely why it helps you sleep soundly, participating in the patient care program helps give states (and eventually the feds) a better picture of actual use. Having a true count, one that stands in contrast with years of discreet use, could help influence cannabis policy, too.
One less visible benefit: medical cannabis cards and programs can help older uses who grew up alongside severe stigma against the drug consider weed a legitimate treatment for their issues.
The benefits of medical cannabis
While getting a medical card involves additional steps versus purchasing in a recreational shop, there are inherent benefits to going the medical route, including increased access in states where you don’t live. Some states, like Hawaii, provide what’s called reciprocity, where your medical card from state X is fair game in state Y—a boon for people who need the consistent and reliable access that medical outlets can provide.
Other states don’t have separate shops for separate types of buyers anymore, including California, which reformed its program in 2016 after decades of medical reign. But medical buyers are still treated differently, at least at the checkout: Today in California, retail adult use shops serve medical patients with the same products as recreational buyers, but certain city and state taxes are waived. These costs can be significant, and for regular medical users, the savings are worth the fees and extra steps.
In New Jersey, card holders can skip the line at the dispensary and select from a guaranteed stock and use a dedicated checkout, while adult use folks have to wait—and pray the products they want don’t sell out. Similar rules exist around possession in states like Oregon, where medical card holders can have more, or have permission to grow their own.
Establishing yourself as a registered patient right now could help you down the road if healthcare programs begin to consider cannabis as a legitimate treatment—perhaps one day it will be eligible for discounts, coverage, or even flexible spending accounts.
How to get a medical cannabis card
With a legitimate medical need—with the definition of “legitimate” varying from state to state—it’s generally not hard to get the documentation sorted to obtain a medical use card. Many states require only a doctor’s note, rather than a state- or county-issued physical card. Laws and regulations certainly differ from state to state; while New York might check in with you via email if you are missing paperwork, some counties in California will consider any missing detail an automatic denial unless you have a sympathetic intake staffer.
That’s where online medical use card services come in—they can get you what you need to get a card, provided you qualify and the doctor they set you up with agrees that cannabis would be a good treatment option. Sites like NuggMD, VeriHeal, and others can connect you with doctors who have experience with cannabis patients if your own doctor doesn’t feel comfortable prescribing it.
But when working with a site like one of the above, it’s important to remember that the company generally can’t communicate with the state on your behalf, so you typically have to be the one to forward the recommendation, your ID, proof of residency and any other needed information to your state or county agency to get final approval and obtain your physical card.
When to use recreational cannabis instead of getting a medical card
Is getting a medical card worth it if you only use occasionally, say when you’re suffering a sleepless night? It’s really your call. If you’re happy, keep doing what you’re doing. But if your use needs increase use for any medical reasons, like pain, sleep, or anxiety, consider signing up. If you have an eligible condition and just want the option, or perhaps hope to be able to shop in other states, get the process started.
An important additional note: If you buy cannabis for another person who uses it medically, you can get a caretaker card to help serve their needs better, so they don’t have to go to the store at all. It’s up to you how you want to shop, but the options are progressing in many states, and hopefully one day federal law will follow along.
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