Cannabis 101

Understanding Medical vs. Adult-Use Cannabis Dispensaries

Published on January 30, 2017 · Last updated April 19, 2022

It’s quite possible that cannabis recently became medicinally or recreationally legal in your state, which means that cannabis will be (or already is) sold in storefronts near you. But before you jump for joy and head towards the nearest cannabis shop, make sure you know the difference between a medical dispensary and a recreational, adult-use store. Knowing these differences will help prepare you for your first visit to either type of business and equip you with a few good tips to help you get the most out of your legal cannabis purchase.

What is a Medical Cannabis Dispensary?

Cannabis Organic Medicine Springfield Oregon

Medical cannabis dispensaries are designed to give patients a secure location to procure information and cannabis grown to treat ailments. They’re usually regulated and taxed differently than recreational cannabis outlets, and for this reason, prices of cannabis may vary between the two. The interior design of medical dispensaries is typically closer to a doctor’s office than a typical storefront. Come prepared with the proper documentation and questions related to cannabis and your illness.

Here’s what you need to know before visiting your local medical dispensary:

  • You will need a doctor’s recommendation, medical cannabis certification, and/or whatever proper documentation is required by your state.
  • Typically, you must be 18 or older to qualify for a medical authorization, but exceptions may be made in some states for minors with particularly debilitating conditions.
  • You will usually register with a medicinal dispensary. This is to keep your medical cannabis recommendation or certification on file for legal and regulatory purposes.
  • There will be a waiting room. This is to control the flow of patients and product, but a simple dividing wall also gives patients privacy and direct one-on-one contact with a budtender to candidly discuss medical issues.
  • Many times, but not always, your purchases will be tracked by medical dispensaries. This process can help budtenders and patients track effective medicine as well as have a living record of producers and products for future reference and follow-up.
  • Medicinal dispensaries usually allow you to smell and examine the buds before purchase. This may vary from state-to-state.

What is an Adult-Use (Recreational) Cannabis Store?

Colorado Marijuana Shop

The term “adult-use” comes from the notion that not all patrons of a cannabis dispensary are consuming cannabis solely for recreational purposes. Cannabis can and is utilized for many reasons that go beyond the recreational/medicinal cannabis binary. An adult-use shop may also be referred to as a “dispensary,” but as more states legalize recreational use, more people are pivoting away from language leftover from the days of “medical-only” legislation.

5 questions to ask that help your budtender help you

Adult-use shops require fewer prerequisites than a medical dispensary, although there’s plenty to know before you set foot inside one of these legal cannabis storefronts::

  • You must be at least 21 years old to purchase cannabis from an adult-use store.
  • Your valid, unexpired state ID is your key to the kingdom of cannabis. When in doubt, bring your valid, unexpired passport. (Emphasis on “valid and unexpired.”)
  • Many stores have menus to peruse on their website or while you stand in line. Menus can be organized in many different ways, but most commonly by product type (e.g. flower, concentrate, edible, topical, etc.). Note that the best cannabis isn’t always the most expensive or have the highest THC%.
  • There are great budtenders on the medical and adult-use sides of the cannabis industry, but generally speaking, a recreational dispensary budtender does not have the time to devote 20 minutes of undivided attention to each customer like many medical budtenders will. This doesn’t mean a budtender won’t educate you or share sincere recommendations; rather, adult-use storefronts are grab-and-go locations generally designed for accessibility and convenience. And just as liquor stores can have sommeliers and/or regular checkers, cannabis dispensary associates can range from verbose horticulture majors to basic “customer service representatives.”

Tips for a Successful Cannabis Dispensary Visit

Driver's Licence

  • Bring cash. Plan ahead and pull some money out of the bank. This will save you time and a service charge from the in-house ATM.
  • Do the research. Most dispensaries have a website and a menu. Leafly is an excellent source for dispensary menus, but when in doubt, call and double-check the availability of a product.
  • Have a valid, unexpired ID or passport. If you don’t have a current, active form of identification, you’ll be turned away at the door.
  • Be patient and polite. Budtenders see hundreds of people every day and will give better service to kind, polite individuals/couples/groups.
  • Ask questions. Most recreational dispensaries can’t directly answer medical questions, so instead, ask questions that are valuable to you. For example, instead of asking, “I need cannabis that helps manage pain,” try asking “What strains do you enjoy that help with physical discomfort?” Budtenders can usually share their personal cannabis experience, elucidating a strain’s medicinal benefits without directly recommending medical use.
  • A tip is not required, but is always appreciated. Different dispensaries handle this subject differently. At the end of the day, follow your heart. If you feel like you received exceptional service and would like to show your appreciation, feel free to leave a small cash tip for your budtender.

By entering into a medical or adult-use cannabis dispensary, you and the state are trusting each other. You trust that lawmakers are regulating the product justly and instituting safeguards to protect public health, and the state trusts the consumer to utilize and enjoy their cannabis responsibly. To reiterate, you are the public face of your state’s new cannabis market. The way you conduct yourself in the public eye while consuming cannabis will help define the perception of this young industry. The best practices here are common sense, respect, and discretion.

Lead Image: Andrew Selsky/AP

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Jeremiah Wilhelm
Jeremiah Wilhelm
Jeremiah Wilhelm is a former strain researcher at Leafly.
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