Medicinal vs. Recreational: What’s The Difference?

New medical marijuana laws are opening three million more Americans to pot’s healing benefits.

Recreational cannabis users have increasingly turned to THC for the “highs” of soothing arthritis, beating insomnia, and otherwise boosting well-being. Now, thanks to new medical marijuana laws in 33 states and D.C., nearly three million more Americans with chronic pain and a host of ailments can find relief in pot’s healing powers.

“It’s a life-changer,” says New Orleans artist “Willow P.,” 50, who began using medical weed in August, when Louisiana became the first state in the Deep South to legalize therapeutic THC. She uses it to treat intractable pain due to Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a disease that weakens connective tissue. “When my pain is at a 7, medical marijuana can take it down to a 5, where the pain feels more like pressure—(which) is so welcome at that point,” says Willow.  

Medical cannabis is essentially the same as the weed available to the over-21 crowd in the 11 rec-legal states and D.C. The medicinal differences: higher THC potency limits, fewer quantity restrictions, and lower costs and taxes. Products vary by state and aren’t covered by health insurance. And though specially trained medical budtenders can dispense some health-related advice, finding a marijuana doctor who knows your medical history, current meds, and dosing needs is a much better idea. 

Related: How Weed Saved Lonnie Palelei

“There are nuances to using this, just like any other medication,” says Dr. Rachna Patel, an emergency room physician turned cannabis doctor (since 2012) who now consults medical marijuana users online. “A lot of patients need a physician follow-up, especially regarding dosing and CBD-to-THC ratios so that amounts can be tweaked until they’re just right. This is not a one-and-done process.”
Determining means of delivery is on a case-by-case basis, Dr. Patel says: “Someone who’s had gastric bypass surgery, for instance, won’t be able to tolerate edibles as well.” Nor might medical users who mindlessly snack on sweets. Those without a high tolerance who consume 100mg of THC (hello, slow-acting chocolate bar) are in for a bad trip, she adds—to the ER. “I don’t believe in heavy use. I believe in optimal dosing [and] consistency of use so you don’t develop a tolerance to it.”

Willow typically administers a 5mg CBD/5mg THC sublingual to quell inflammation twice in the morning, then doses up to 10mg of THC-only drops to deaden pain two to three times total in the afternoon and evening as needed. Medical weed, she adds, has given her “health bonuses,” alleviating her condition-related depression and anxiety and enabling a more restful, healing sleep. 

It’s work, yes, to figure this out. But then, Big Pharma is standing by with opioid and anti-depressant regimens that might heal you, or might kill you. Isn’t a little effort worth it?