As more and more countries are decriminalising or legalising weed, the distinction between so-called ‘medicinal’ and ‘recreational’ cannabis use has become a divisive one. In the UK, for instance, medicinal use has been legalised since 2018, while recreational use remains illegal.
Both groups of users smoke, vape or consume the same plant. So what is the difference?
The theoretical difference between medical and recreational consumption lies primarily in intent and access, meaning why people consume cannabis and where they obtain it.
Medicinal cannabis use is purely for symptom alleviation, is accompanied by a prescription and is obtained through a dispensary. Recreational cannabis use, on the other hand, is done with the aim of getting high and often only made possible through street dealers and organised crime, in places where recreational use is banned.
However, in reality, the line between the two is considerably blurrier than might appear at first.
It is common for those who initially appear to be ‘recreational’ users to disclose, when prompted, health conditions that have been alleviated by cannabis. In fact, many users consume cannabis to help with things like sleep problems and insomnia, anxiety, pain etc. without directly acknowledging the medicinal effects.
Many will simply think that getting high makes them feel good, when feeling good is a result of symptom alleviation. The lack of a formal prescription does not negate the medical value someone derives from the consumption of cannabis, even if the cannabis was not purchased with an overt medicinal intent.
It also goes without saying that having to disclose your medical history to justify using your medication in public and avoid getting arrested is dehumanising and ableist.
Project Twenty21 – the biggest scheme in the UK, offering affordable cannabis medication to patients – recently increased their prices by 40%, pushing many legal consumers out of the market.
Price increase for legal patients by 40% for a plant that grows.
What a terrible thing to do. https://t.co/fCIAwuFh8n
— Shakey Jim (@ragabonz) January 6, 2022
Statistically, those who are priced out of the legal sector will now be counted as recreational users as they will need to obtain their medication from street dealers or cultivate their own plants, both of which are illegal in the UK. When it comes to financial barriers to accessing the legal market, the distinction between medicinal and recreational use quickly becomes a matter of class and income.
Different strains for different uses?
There are hundreds of different strains of cannabis, some higher in THC levels, some higher in CBD levels. While THC-dominant strains tend to be used more often on a recreational basis due to their psychoactive effects, these are also purported to be more effective for pain relief, which means we cannot differentiate between recreational and medicinal users based on the cannabinoid composition of their product alone.
In the same way that there is no real difference between indica and sativa strains, there is no real difference between medical and recreational cannabis. In reality, every strain and every plant is unique and will interact differently with an individual endocannabinoid system.
Why does it matter?
This dichotomy is one of the main hurdles we have to overcome on our journey to legalise marijuana in the UK. A recent YouGov America survey supports this theory. The survey showed that support for legalisation seems to be lower if the word “recreational” is used – 72% of Americans support the legalisation of medical cannabis, while only 50% support the legalisation of recreational cannabis.
It is a misconception that one form of consumption is somehow ‘more legitimate’ than the other. It misses a lot of nuance and implies a clear division where there is none.
It’s time to ditch this dichotomy and focus, instead, on the good that can come from cannabis in its many forms, without having to put labels on individual users’ consumption patterns.