“Dispensary” and “headshop” are often two of the first terms prospective cannabis consumers are exposed to. If you're completely new to the cannabis culture, you might find yourself asking, "What's the difference between a headshop and a dispensary?" Well, don't worry. We have the answers you need to not look like a total newbie. 

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Headshops supply you with the tools you need 

  • have been around longer than dispensaries
  • do not sell cannabis
  • sell paraphernalia under the façade of tobacco and counter-culture merchandise
  • are not particularly social
  • are becoming more popular online

Dispensaries supply you with your weed 

  • started as cannabis stores for medical patients
  • sell a range of cannabis products as well as paraphernalia and merchandise
  • cater to either medical or recreational users
  • employ “budtenders” who can help customers navigate their cannabis menus

Headshops: Where You Get Your Paraphernalia

Pipe for Smoking drugs herb marijuana (cannabis) iStock / Olga Vasilyeva

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While the name for this establishment is often used interchangeably with dispensary, there is a pretty big difference between the two: while you will probably find paraphernalia in a dispensary, you won’t find cannabis in a headshop.

Headshops rose in popularity during the 1960s, and it was during this era that the stores got their name. At the time, someone who was a “head” was perceived as being enlightened (think “feed your head” from Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit). A headshop was a place where the enlightened members of the anti-establishment, counterculture movement could purchase the tools they needed to feed their heads. 

The role of the headshop today is similar to what it was during the 60’s: to provide smoking paraphernalia, literature, and other merchandise that reflect the values of an anti-establishment subculture. The latter two roles were much more salient during the ’60s. Headshops were a safe place for anti-establishment magazines and other merchandise with controversial messaging to be distributed. However, because of federal prohibition laws, one role headshops never took on was the distribution of weed.

The Decline of the Headshop

The role of headshops as the epicenter of the subculture movement diminished as the counterculture movement was commoditized. Once it became possible for Che Guevara and Bob Marley shirts to be purchased at the local mall, that’s what people chose to do instead. The legally ambiguous position headshops have been in since their rise played a large part in their decline.   

The Controlled Substances Act created a drug schedule that categorized specific substances as legal or illegal drugs. In addition to prohibiting cannabis, the law also prohibited the distribution of cannabis paraphernalia.

Under section 21, “it is unlawful for any person (1) to sell or offer for sale drug paraphernalia, (2) to use  the mails or any other facility of interstate commerce to transport drug paraphernalia; (3) or to import or export drug paraphernalia.” Under this federal law, violations are subject to a maximum of three years of imprisonment and a fine.  State laws can be even worse than federal laws. In some states, fines can be multiple thousands of dollars and convicts sent to prison for up to a decade.    

These laws are surprising given the prevalence of headshops throughout the country, including in states where cannabis is still illegal. The explanation reveals just how foolish prohibition laws can be. Paraphernalia is illegal only once it has been used to consume an illegal drug.

Head shops get away with selling bongs, bowls, pipe screens, roach clips, rolling papers, weighing scales, dime bags, and more because they claim that these instruments are meant to be used for tobacco products (or jewelry in the case of the bags). To avoid state or federal prosecution, some of these shops ban customers from using cannabis-related terms within their walls (the word “bong,” for example,” is prohibited in many headshops). 

Don't Call it a Comeback

The legalization of cannabis has made headshops more relevant once again. Rather than seeing a rise in brick and mortar stores, however, online headshops have become increasingly popular. Laws regulating online purchases are a bit more ambiguous and no one can deny the convenience of shopping from home.

Going to a physical headshop is still a fun experience, especially since a lot of these stores sell much more than just paraphernalia, and browsing their merchandise with a friend can be entertaining. However, once you know what you’re looking for, it’s definitely easier to take the online route.

Additionally, the legally gray space these establishments occupy require customers and employees to be opaque about their intentions—you can’t really ask the cashier to help you choose a device for your pot if you’re technically not supposed to be using it for an illegal substance.     

Dispensaries: Where You Get Your Weed

Ypsilianti, MI, United States - July 3, 2013: Medical marijuana dispensaries, such as this one in Ypsilanti, MI, shown July 3, 2013, started opening after the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act was passed in 2008. iStock / smontgom65

When people use the word dispensary, they are talking about establishments that actually sell (dispense) cannabis. “Dispensary” has a bit of a medical connotation because the very first dispensaries to sell cannabis in the United States were those that did so for medicinal use.

In the past decade, cannabis has been legalized for recreational use in ten states, and stores that sell cannabis for adult use are often called dispensaries. However, they may also be called cannabis or personal use retailers or stores, while businesses that sell medical marijuana continue to be primarily called dispensaries.

You can expect to find the same kinds of things in both medical and recreational dispensaries. Products include many different strains of cannabis flower, concentrates, edibles, topicals, and paraphernalia. The range of products depends on individual state laws. For example, in some states with medical programs, smokable cannabis is illegal, so cannabis flower is unavailable.

Budtenders, employees with extensive knowledge about the cannabis products sold at their stores, are another staple in the world of dispensaries. Budtenders are one of the reasons that many novice cannabis consumers enjoy shopping for cannabis in person even when delivery services are available. Budtenders make the wide world of weed narrow enough for new customers to access.

While the basic function of medical and recreational dispensaries is basically the same, there are some essential differences between the two types of establishments. Medical marijuana is typically available to patients aged 18 and over (there may be exceptions to this rule), while adult use cannabis is available to those who are 21 and older.

Medical dispensaries also keep a registry of their customers to make sure that they are in compliance with medical marijuana regulations. This means that patients are typically expected to arrive with some kind of medical card proving that they are eligible to purchase cannabis products for medical use. Medical marijuana patients are also exempt from the burdensome taxes that continue to make black market weed less expensive than legal adult use cannabis.