Now Reading
Medical Marijuana vs. Recreational: What’s The Difference?
recreational cigarettes

Medical and recreational marijuana differ in their history, uses, and THC content.

As marijuana’s popularity continues to grow, you may be wondering about the difference between medical and recreational marijuana.

Marijuana was first used for its medical benefits, but over time people started using the drug recreationally.

Today, medical cannabis strains usually have more CBD. Medical marijuana is also legal with a prescription in many areas.

On the other hand, recreational cannabis has more THC, the ingredient that makes a user high. Although laws are becoming more relaxed, using cannabis recreationally remains illegal in most states.


Arabian countries
(Photo: Shutterstock)

People may debate over whether cannabis’s main use today is medical or recreational, but it was almost certainly first used as a medicine.

Medical Marijuana

The first mention of marijuana historically comes from a book written by pharmacologist and Emperor Shen Neng of China. In 2737 BC, he wrote about how cannabis could be used to treat constipation, gout, malaria and poor memory.

Cannabis began spreading through South Asia between 1000 BC and 2000 BC. During this time, the drug was used in India and was described in an ancient Sanskrit Vedic poem as one of the “herbs… which release us from anxiety.”

Nowadays, many doctors are prescribing medical marijuana for a variety of conditions. These include pain, nausea, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, mental health conditions and more.

As marijuana’s medical benefits slowly became clear, people also started noticing the drug’s euphoric effects.

Recreational Marijuana

In 430 BCE, there are reports of the Scythians—a nomadic tribe—using cannabis both spiritually and recreationally. The drug’s psychoactive effects may be what led these people to inhale cannabis during funerals.

The 12th-century anthology 1,001 Nights proves that the Arabs were aware of the drug’s intoxicating and arousing effects. Hashish smoking became very popular in the Middle East during this time.

In 1843, Théophile Gautier founded The Hashish Club (Club des Hashishins). The group met monthly for drug-induced experiences, mostly with hashish.

Americans were introduced to the idea of using cannabis recreationally after 1910. An influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants brought the drug to America. Shortly after, in 1937, cannabis use was deemed a crime under the Marijuana Tax Act.

Today, recreational marijuana use is mainstream across North America. A 2017 poll found that 52% of Americans over 18 had tried cannabis. Moreover, 44% of those people still use the drug today.

Legal Status

Cannabis cake
(Photo: Shutterstock)

Laws surrounding medical and recreational marijuana are different across the world. But medical marijuana tends to be more legal and more accepted globally, while recreational cannabis is often illegal.

Some countries and states view marijuana as a hard drug and make it illegal even for medical purposes.

Laws are being amended as more research is becoming available about marijuana’s therapeutic benefits. For this reason, it can be difficult to keep track of which states allow recreational cannabis.

In the U.S., people can use cannabis with a prescription or medical card in 29 states as well as the territories of Guam and Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

The drug is legal recreationally in eight states: Maine, Massachusetts, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and California.

Although laws vary, to get a prescription and be served at a medical dispensary, you need to be over 18. In some instances, patients under 18 can apply for a medical card. Recreational dispensaries will generally serve anyone over age 21.

THC and CBD Content

Cannabis strain
(Photo: Shutterstock)

One of the main differences between recreational and medical cannabis tends to be the amount of THC and CBD.

THC is the psychoactive ingredient that gets you high and imparts euphoric effects. For this reason, cannabis strains bought for recreational use tend to have more of this cannabinoid.

In fact, one study showed that marijuana’s THC content has significantly risen over time as the habit becomes more popular. Recreational users often want the most high for the least money, and this has contributed to why marijuana has been bred to be stronger.

CBD is another compound in marijuana with many medical benefits. Unlike THC, CBD does not have psychoactive effects. It also may help counteract THC’s negative side effects such as anxiety or paranoia.

Because of CBD’s benefits, and the fact that it’s non-psychoactive, medical marijuana strains tend to be higher in CBD. High CBD strains that do not get the user high include Charlotte’s Web and Avidekel.

Doctors may prescribe strains that are high in CBD to treat schizophrenia, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and more.


As laws change, it’s important to know the difference between medical and recreational marijuana.

Medical marijuana is used by patients with a prescription, and it is legal in many areas. Medical marijuana often contains more CBD, because this cannabinoid is often therapeutic. Medical marijuana was the first use of the cannabis plant.

Recreational marijuana is used to get high, and it is more often illegal. This kind of marijuana tends to have more THC, because this is the psychoactive compound responsible for the euphoric high. Recreational use of marijuana also dates back thousands of years.