Cannabis prohibition has been a public safety hazard and a social justice catastrophe. The wealth of information supporting the legalization of weed has resulted in a wave of state-led regulation efforts. Today, 30 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized pot for medicinal use, and 9 of those states plus D.C. have also legalized for recreational use. As the international community moves away from cannabis prohibition as well, it seems like the recreational use of marijuana is on its way to becoming the new normal. But as adult-use weed becomes a hot ballot issue, has the fight for medical marijuana lost its edge?
Does the Recreational Industry Undermine the Medical One?
The short answer is, probably. States that have legalized recreational weed have seen the recreational market far surpass the medical one in terms of growth. Because the recreational industry has proven to be such an explosively lucrative opportunity, businesses that began in the medical industry make the economic decision to move to the larger market. Additionally, when cannabis first becomes legal for recreational use and supply is low, it is often medical growers and dispensaries that fill in the gap as the recreational industry develops. The consequence can be an undersupply of medicine for patients who rely on it to get through the day. Some states even discuss merging medical and recreational frameworks to remove the complexity of regulating two separate industries.
One can only hope that if that happens, the standards for cannabis become much higher than they’ve ever been before. While recreational weed is an enormous victory for the movement, the economy, and the criminal justice system, it’s important to always remember that, unlike other recreational substances, cannabis is a medicine, too.
Recreational VS Medical Marijuana: How They’re Different and Why That Matters
When it comes to the actual cannabis, there is no difference between medical and recreational pot. All cannabis products are derived from the same plant species—cannabis sativa. In fact, lab testing requirements for both recreational and medicinal cannabis are often the same. However, producers and retailers in states with both recreational and medicinal industries must distinguish between adult or medicinal use when applying for their licenses. Additionally, companies that target the medical market will typically indicate that in their branding.
Even though the product isn’t technically different between the two industries, the markets they serve are very different, and this is why it is important that a distinction remains. The most obvious difference is that medical patients are using cannabis to treat disordered health or behavior. Recreational users may be interested in the therapeutic value of cannabis, but consuming pot is not as critical in determining their quality of life.
Several other differences stem from that foundational distinction. Medicinal users may consume much higher quantities of cannabis than recreational users. Consequently, they may benefit significantly from price deductions since they may need to purchase larger quantities of pot on a more regular basis. This is why registering as a medical marijuana patient can be financially useful—medical patients are typically exempt from certain taxes when making their medicinal purchases.
Because medicinal users may have to medicate often, they may be more interested in purchasing products with higher CBD to THC ratios than what is typically sought after by a recreational user. THC is the cannabinoid responsible for cannabis’ psychoactive effect—the higher the THC content in a cannabis product, the more potent the high a user is likely to experience. CBD is the second most abundant cannabinoid housed in the cannabis plant, but it causes no psychoactive effects. Additionally, CBD has been identified as one of the most medically viable compounds weed naturally produces. Products with a higher CBD content than THC content are likely to have minimal psychoactive effects but excellent therapeutic ones.
Finally and most importantly, medical users are often immunocompromised. For example, HIV/AIDS patients who medicate with cannabis are extremely vulnerable to pathogens that, for them, can pose fatal threats in the most extreme circumstances. One 2017 UC Davis study found that medical marijuana samples in California subjected to the state’s old testing requirements contained dangerous levels of pathogens. Joseph Tuscano, one of the study’s lead authors, cautioned that patients shouldn’t use medical marijuana for this reason. “Infection with the pathogens we found in medical marijuana could lead to serious illness and even death,” he said. “Inhaling marijuana in any form provides a direct portal of entry deep into the lungs where infection can easily take hold.”
That study and the lack of federal oversight on the quality and safety of cannabis cultivation mean that the fight for medical patients is not over just because medical marijuana has become legal. In fact, it’s an important fight now more than ever. Now that cannabis is available for medical and recreational use, it is critical that players from all levels of the industry—from producers to retailers to regulators—prioritize the healthiest and most sustainable practices from cultivation to processing.
A Brief History of Medical Cannabis
The momentum gathered by the legalization movement in the past decade is thanks to the untiring advocacy of cannabis use for medical patients. The very first time the US Federal Government acknowledged cannabis’ medical efficacy through policy was in 1978 with the creation of the Compassionate Investigational New Drug Program. Through this program, severely ill patients could receive a consistent supply of cannabis from the Federal Government. Because of the complexity of the application process, only 13 patients ever actually participated in the program.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, about 30 states began implementing medical marijuana laws that distinguished the medicinal and recreational uses of the plant. Some of these states allowed doctors to prescribe cannabis supplied through the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Others reclassified cannabis in their state-wide drug schedules. However, federal prohibition and a much more anti-pot social climate made these laws difficult to implement.
Continued advocacy for medical marijuana spearheaded by organizations like NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) finally led to the monumental legalization of medical marijuana through the approval of Proposition 215, a ballot initiative that would become California’s Compassionate Use Act. This watershed victory led to the legalization of medical cannabis in Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Nevada, and D.C. in 1998. Since then, the number of states approving medical cannabis programs has expanded, and 9 states and Washington D.C. have expanded regulation to recreational weed.