On November 8, 2016, California voters elected to legalize cannabis for recreational use when they passed Proposition 64.  That didn’t come as a huge surprise since the state has had a regulatory framework for commercial medical cannabis since 1996.

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California Legalization, 22 Years in the Making

On November 5, 1996, the voters of California passed Proposition 214 which became the Compassionate Use Act.  Medical Cannabis became legal in 1996This law made the state the first to legalize the medicinal use of cannabis in the USA.  Under that law, patients, their caregivers, and their physicians were exempt from state laws criminalizing cannabis.  In 2004, the law was expanded upon by the Medical Marijuana Program Act. That law created a card identification system, established cannabis possession limits, and enacted regulations for the cultivation of cannabis by coops and collectives. California’s 22-year old medical cannabis operation made the recreational sales launch a little more complicated. Regulators struggled to reconcile two separate regulatory frameworks, ultimately choosing to combine the medical and recreational frameworks into one under the current law, the Medicinal and Adult-Use Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act. Though medicinal and recreational cannabis will operate within the same framework, they will still be distinguished.  Medical cannabis will be labeled with an “M” while adult-use cannabis will be labeled with an “A.” Retailers can apply for an “A” or “M” license, or they can apply for a dual license.

The Onset of Recreational Sales Will Shrink the Medical Market 

Estimates predict that the recreational market will slowly cannibalize the medical one. Medical sales are expected to drop from $2 billion in 2016 to $1.4 billion in 2018 while recreational sales are expected to generate over $5 billion. This is likely because a lot of people who sought medical cards weren’t actually sick. The recreational market is sufficient for those cannabis users, and that might not be a bad thing for patients who signed up because cannabis is truly their medicine of choice. It may mean less business in medical dispensaries, or more serious business focused on wellness.

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A diverging culture within the cannabis world could shepherd consumers who are far more interested in health than recreation into medical dispensaries while corralling casual users into recreational ones.

At the same time, this might not be enough for entrepreneurs trying to make the most of the industry’s lucrative potential. Many medical dispensaries are choosing to become full service establishmentsMany medical dispensaries have made and will continue to make the decision to become full-service retailers, offering medical grade cannabis but opening their doors to all. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for medical patients, though. Now that any adult can obtain cannabis, the stigma surrounding cannabis consumption will continue to lose its power and more people will become interested in actually studying the plant. The more acceptance and information out there, the more likely it is to spread across the nation. Ideally, this would culminate in the removal of cannabis from the federal drug schedule.  That would change everything for patients as it would make it far easier for researchers to study the plant’s medicinal properties.

Why Obtaining a Medical Card is Still a Good Idea 

Now that adults aged 21 and over can legally obtain cannabis with a government-issued photo ID, it might seem redundant to go through the hassle of applying for a medical card. Though that may eventually be true, the nascence of California’s recreational market might create enough instability to give medical card holders a smoother transition into California’s new normal. Whether or not applying for a medical card in California is truly a hassle is highly debatable. The state is well known for being incredibly lax about to whom it gives its medical cards.

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Tax Savings 

California Medical Marijuana Identification Card holders are exempt from the state’s tax, and given the massive losses that took place on cannabis farms during the wildfires in October, that could add up to big savings. Even though a card costs $100 annually—or $50 for low-income patients—that money will quickly be made up from tax savings.

Cannabis Cafes

One of the social advantages of having a medical card is that it gives patients access to dispensaries that are attached to cannabis cafes or places where cardholders can imbibe socially. Having a medical card gets you access to Cannabis Cafes State law prohibits the public consumption of cannabis, so pot users are restricted to gatherings at private residences if they want to puff-puff-pass. However, medical dispensaries have more freedom to provide a space for eligible patrons to socialize. There aren’t many of these out there, to begin with, but in the recreational market, there aren’t any (legitimate ones, at least) at all.

More Store Options 

It’s going to take the Golden State some months before its commercial cannabis industry is in full swing. Cultivators and retailers must jump through hoops to obtain licensing, and that is going to slow down the availability of cannabis on the shelves.

Exclusively medical dispensaries, on the other hand, will likely be business as usual. Though only a handful of recreational stores are currently open across the state, there is an abundance of exclusively medical dispensaries open that won’t be struggling to catch up to the pace of a new market.

Higher Limits 

Medical card holders have fewer restrictions than recreational users. Medical patients can possess up to eight ounces of cannabis (or more if their physician recommends it) and grow more than six plants. Recreational users are only permitted to possess up to one ounce of cannabis at a time and grow six plants.

It’s a Better Deal for the Ill

All of these benefits exist to accommodate those who are truly using cannabis to medicate a serious illness. Dispensaries that cater to medical patients will likely have a more therapeutically useful selection and staff who are knowledgeable about the effect of certain strains on various conditions.

The medical card also makes cannabis available to adults aged 18 and up, so it opens the door to a younger crowd made up of people too old to ask their parents to advocate for them but too young to access the recreational market.

Finally, a medical card might be just the additional symbol of legitimacy to encourage a patient who could truly benefit from cannabis but who struggles with the plant’s stigma to dip their toes in the water while everyone around them takes the plunge.