The Difference Between Medical and Recreational Marijuana in Colorado

Since 2012, Colorado residents have enjoyed the benefits of both medical and adult-use cannabis. As both are  legal, it may seem more convenient to be a recreational consumer, avoiding the process of getting a medical marijuana card.

There are key differences between recreational and medical cannabis. And if you qualify, there are several benefits to becoming a patient. It’s important to understand the legal differences between each type of consumption.

Why people use cannabis in Colorado

The biggest difference between medical and adult-use marijuana is the reason why people use it. Those who use it recreationally may do so socially or to relax at the end of a long day. They might consume cannabis for general relaxation or simply because they enjoy the effects. 

For medical patients, cannabis provides relief from symptoms of a medical condition. It can help you live a more comfortable, enjoyable life. While there is still a stigma surrounding medical marijuana, public perception is changing as education about cannabis continues to spread nationwide. 

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, there were 80,077 registered medical marijuana patients statewide as of April 2022. Most of these patients are between 21 and 40 years old. 

The vast majority of those patients – 63,391, to be exact – reported using cannabis for severe pain. Additionally, over 15,000 patients reported that they use marijuana for muscle spasms. About 16,000 used it in lieu of opioid prescriptions.

Accessing cannabis as a patient vs. a recreational user

In Colorado, the requirements are different for accessing marijuana products if you’re a medical patient versus an adult-use consumer. 

If you’re purchasing products recreationally, you simply need to be 21 or older and present your driver’s license or state ID when visiting a dispensary. 

However, those who are interested in becoming patients must apply for the  Colorado Medical Marijuana Registry to get a registry identification card before visiting a dispensary.

Requirements for medical cannabis use

To become a medical cannabis patient, you must meet these requirements:

1. Be a Colorado resident with a valid state ID
2. Be diagnosed with one of the state’s qualifying medical conditions (listed below)
3. Receive a written recommendation from a licensed physician stating that you have a qualifying condition and may benefit from the use of medical marijuana (medical records may also be required)*

*If you’re under 21 years old, you’ll need a recommendation from two separate physicians, unless you’re 18+ and were registered for medical use as a minor. Medical records are also required and must be updated annually.

Qualifying conditions

Medical patients in Colorado must have one of the following qualifying conditions: 

• Cancer
• Glaucoma 
• Autism Spectrum Disorder
• Any condition for which a physician could prescribe an opioid for pain
• Chronic or debilitating diseases or medical conditions such as cachexia, severe pain, severe nausea, seizures, and persistent muscle spasms

Colorado cannabis regulations

Whether you’re a medical or recreational user, it’s important to know the state laws about cannabis possession and consumption. 

For both types of users, it’s illegal to use cannabis products in public or in a way that endangers the health or wellbeing of other people. It’s also illegal to drive while under the influence of cannabis. 

Employers are not required to accommodate cannabis use during work, whether you’re a medical patient or not. The following is state legislation that differs between the types of marijuana use:

Colorado medical cannabis laws

The following is lawful for those carrying a medical marijuana card:

• Can possess up to two ounces of marijuana
• Residents can grow a maximum of 12 marijuana plants per household (six for medical and six recreational purposes). Patients may be exempt from these limits if they claim that a higher amount is medically necessary.
• Schools are required to treat non-smokable medical marijuana as any other prescription medication. In other words, they must adopt policies for the storage and administration of medical marjuana products. Students may not administer it themselves while in school.

Colorado recreational laws

For those who are 21 and older, the following is permitted under Colorado’s recreational marijuana laws:

• Can possess up to one ounce of cannabis 
• Residents can grow six marijuana plants in a closed and locked space, including three or less mature, flowering plants
• Cannabis use is prohibited on school grounds

Individual towns in Colorado may have their own regulations regarding cannabis businesses and locations for permitted use. Towns may even prohibit cannabis businesses from opening in their communities. However, they can’t limit residents’ rights to possess, grow or use marijuana.

Benefits of medical marijuana in Colorado

Not sure if you should go through the process of becoming a patient? First, be aware of the benefits of getting a medical marijuana card.

State law allows higher possession limits, as well as exceptions to home-grow regulations if needed for your condition. Unlike recreational consumers, residents who are under 21 may access marijuana products if they qualify for medical use. 

Also, registering for medical marijuana makes financial sense. Patients aren’t required to pay the 10% retail tax and 15% excise tax on adult-use products. 

Thinking about getting a Colorado medical marijuana card?

Relaxed Clarity can assist you throughout the process in applying for a medical card. We’ve been the leading Colorado cannabis patient evaluation center and education clinic since 2009, helping over 35,000 patients become certified annually.

What our medical marijuana doctors do:

• Provide medical cannabis evaluations in a safe, judgment-free space
• Help you understand state marijuana laws
• Provide education about cannabis and how it might be helpful for your condition

How our cannabis clinic works:

Interested in medical marijuana and have a qualifying condition? Schedule an appointment to visit a Relaxed Clarity cannabis clinic. Cannabis telemedicine evaluations are no longer provided through our clinics, so we’ll meet you in person, the old-fashioned way!

You’ll need to bring a driver’s license or state ID and fill out some initial paperwork. Then you’ll meet with a medical marijana practitioner. Our team will support you from the moment you walk in the door, assisting with the registration process, submitting paperwork, and answering any questions you have.

Need a better idea of what to expect when you arrive? This CNBC story featuring Relaxed Clarity offers an inside look at one of our clinics and how we help our patients.