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Leafly’s guide to recreational marijuana legalization

Although marijuana is illegal at the federal level in the United States, nearly a dozen states have opted to legalize cannabis for adult use, colloquially known as “recreational marijuana.”

While most states have limited legalization efforts to medical marijuana access only, adult use is steadily picking up steam and spreading across the country. In November 2020, voters in four states (New Jersey, Arizona, Montana, and South Dakota) will decide whether or not to legalize adult-use cannabis.

Learn more about recreational cannabis legalization by browsing through the sections below.

What is recreational marijuana?

“Recreational marijuana,” or adult-use cannabis, is legal marijuana sold in licensed dispensaries to adults ages 21 and older. It can be in the form of smokable flower, concentrates (e.g. vape cartridges, hash, wax, shatter, tinctures), edibles, or topicals.

In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first two states in the US to legalize cannabis for adult use. Since then, other states have followed suit. States and territories with legal recreational markets also operate legal medical marijuana programs that cater to patients with qualifying conditions.

What is the difference between recreational and medical marijuana legalization?

Most states in the US that have legal access to cannabis have granted it to valid medical marijuana patients only. As of September 2020, 11 states plus Washington, DC and Guam have legalized recreational marijuana. Twenty-four states plus Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, by contrast, have a legal medical marijuana program, but each state’s program varies considerably in terms of access, qualifying conditions, and type of products available.

Rec vs. MMJ: age restrictions

When a state legalizes cannabis for adult use, only adults ages 21 and older with valid identification may legally buy cannabis from licensed dispensaries. Medical marijuana legalization restricts purchases to valid patients—typically ages 21 and up, although some programs allow patients ages 18+, as well as minors who have a qualifying condition, a doctor’s authorization, and a parent or guardian to dispense medication.

Medical marijuana patients must also renew their doctor’s authorization—most commonly annually, although it varies by each state’s program—in order to maintain a valid medical cannabis card.

Rec vs. MMJ: purchase and possession limits

Recreational marijuana customers are limited by the amount of cannabis they can purchase at one time, as well as the total amount of marijuana they may possess.

While medical marijuana patients are also limited by the amount of cannabis they can purchase, many states allow patients to purchase and possess more cannabis than recreational consumers since the cannabis is being used medicinally.

Rec vs. MMJ: homegrow differences

Some states that prohibit or limit home growing for personal adult use may make exceptions for medical marijuana patients—they can often grow/possess more plants, especially if they live a certain distance away from the nearest licensed dispensary.

Rec vs. MMJ: tax exemptions

Medical marijuana patients are often exempt from paying certain additional taxes that are leveed on cannabis products in recreational markets. For example, in Seattle, Washington, recreational customers must pay a combined 10.1% sales tax on their purchases (6.5% state sales and use tax rate, plus 3.6% local/county tax) while valid medical marijuana patients do not.

Rec vs. MMJ: product selection and potency limits

When it comes to product selection, there tends to be very little difference between medical and recreational menus. At either store type, you’re bound to find the shelves full of various ediblesdrinkablesvaporizerstopicalsstrains, and concentrates. Some state medical marijuana laws, however, may restrict the form factor allowed to patients, so certain products—like smokable flower—may be unavailable to them.

Rec vs. MMJ: shopping experience and customer support

Medical and recreational dispensaries tend to have similar shopping experiences. Qualified medical marijuana patients will need to present both their ID to prove they’re legally old enough to purchase cannabis, as well as their valid medical cannabis card. Some medical dispensaries also have a waiting room where patients sit and are called back one at a time to ensure privacy. They may also offer discounts and tax breaks to medical patients.

Recreational dispensaries also check ID, and like medical marijuana dispensaries, they often only accept cash or debit cards due to the lack of banking services set up for the cannabis industry.

Oftentimes, recreational stores are not permitted to provide medical advice to customers, although you can still shop at them as a medical patient. Some shops are also dual-licensed, meaning they can cater to the needs of both recreational and medical consumers. Medical dispensaries and dual-licensed shops are better equipped to answer patient questions.

Marijuana legalization map

States where recreational marijuana is legal

Below is a list of states and territories that have legalized marijuana for adult use. Click on the name of the state to navigate to more information about its marijuana laws.

StateLegalization statusAdult use?Medical marijuana?Decriminalized statewide?
AlaskaAdult useYesYesYes
CaliforniaAdult useYesYesYes
ColoradoAdult useYesYesYes
IllinoisAdult useYesYesYes
MaineAdult useYesYesYes
MassachusettsAdult useYesYesYes
MichiganAdult useYesYesN/A
NevadaAdult useYesYesYes
OregonAdult useYesYesYes
VermontAdult useYesYesYes
WashingtonAdult useYesYesN/A
Washington, DCAdult useYesYesYes
GuamAdult useYesYesN/A

How to buy cannabis in a legal recreational state

Making your first legal cannabis purchase may feel a bit awkward and intimidating, but it’s a simple and safe process. Follow the steps below and you’ll be ready to walk into a recreational cannabis shop with confidence and emerge with the right products for you.

Step 1: Find a cannabis dispensary near you

Note: You must be age 21+ with valid identification to purchase cannabis in any state that has legalized recreational adult-use cannabis.

First, assess which shops are near you. Use Leafly’s store locator tool for a bird’s eye view of stores nearby. Click to view their details at a glance, or dive into their full dispensary page to check out reviews, deals, and menus.

Don’t be afraid to explore a few different dispensaries. Every shop has a unique staff, atmosphere, deals, and product selection. Consider scrolling through a few user-submitted reviews to get a feel for what customers liked (or didn’t like) about the shop.

Once you’ve found a store you love, be sure to leave a review and follow it on Leafly. Maybe you appreciated how helpful the staff was, enjoyed the atmosphere, or found a product you know you’ll want to come back for. Whatever your positive experience looked like, it’s good to take note!

Step 2: Learn the cannabis basics

After you’ve selected a shop, you have one of two options as a first-time buyer:

  1. You can go in and speak with a budtender to ask for product recommendations.
  2. You can do a little research ahead of time to get a better idea of which products may be better suited for you.

You’re welcome to head straight to a dispensary and ask the staff for help. Many dispensaries provide ongoing training and certification programs for budtenders to ensure they stay updated on the latest products and best practices for helping customers choose the right products.

Keep in mind, however, that your local dispensary may carry a lot of products, and you may find yourself overwhelmed by the options available. Furthermore, dispensaries are often busy, so you may have to wait in line while budtenders help other customers.

Alternatively, you can browse a dispensary’s menu of products ahead of time if they have a listing on a site like Leafly. Some locations even allow you to order ahead of time and reserve your purchase for pickup, which is great for skipping long lines.

If you’re not sure which strain or product to try, look through these resources to help narrow down options:

You can also try our Virtual Budtender tool, which is a quick and easy guide that narrows down strain options based on how you answer a few brief questions about the experience you want.

Step 3: Choose and pick up your products

Once you’ve familiarized yourself with cannabis strains, dosing, and consumption methods, revisit the Leafly menu of your local dispensary. You can sort this menu by any desirable criteria such as:

  • Flower (if you want to smoke or vaporize)
  • Concentrates (if you want to try a discreet vape pen)
  • Edibles (if you want a high that will last longer)
  • Pre-rolls (if you want something that’s easy and portable)
  • Other (e.g. suppositories, bath soaks, topicals, and more)

Reserve products you want to try or head into the dispensary and pick out and purchase them onsite, then take them home and try them out.

Remember, every strain and product delivers a unique experience, so don’t be afraid to be adventurous and try a few different types and brands until you find the products you absolutely love.

You may also want to brush up on your state marijuana laws to understand your possession limits and where you can legally consume. Also, take note of some tips on what to do if you accidentally get a little too high.

Legalization guides

For a closer look at other types of legalization, check out our dedicated guides for each.

Keep up with the latest news about legalization

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