Medical Cannabis vs. Recreational: What’s the Difference?

With cannabis being available through medical and recreation channels, it can be difficult to understand the difference between purchasing cannabis recreationally and purchasing cannabis medically. Read on as we discuss:

A Short History of Cannabis in Canada

Cannabis for medical purposes has been legal long before cannabis for recreational use in Canada[1]. Before recreational cannabis was legalized in October 2018, medicinal cannabis was available through the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR)[1],[2].

When The Cannabis Act came into effect, the ACMPR was absorbed into the Cannabis Act legislation[2] (the ACMPR is now a subset of The Cannabis act)[3]

Purchasing Recreational Cannabis 

Recreational cannabis is cannabis or cannabis products that are available for purchase from online governmental cannabis stores, such as The Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS), or in person at privately owned dispensaries that are licenced by the province.

Medical cannabis in canada is purchased through licensed producers
Photo by Aphiwat chuangchoem from Pexels

Purchasing Medical Cannabis

Medical cannabis (includes cannabis or cannabis products) is purchased through Licensed Producers (LP) with a medical document[3]. A medical document:

  • is similar to a prescription but not quite identical
  • is a document signed by a healthcare provider with the appropriate prescribing rights that indicates the upper limit of cannabis that can be used in one day (in grams of dried cannabis) as well as an expiration date for the document[4]
  • may also include the dosage form of the product, for example: oil or dried flower and the strength (ie. % THC or % CBD) but is not mandatory[5]

A medical document is a document signed by a healthcare provider with the appropriate prescribing rights that indicates the upper limit of cannabis that can be used in one day (in grams of dried cannabis) as well as an expiration date for the document

After a medical document is issued by a healthcare professional, it is sent directly to a licensed producer (LPs). Different LPs will offer different dosage forms, concentrations, buds etc. Because of this, LPs can be chosen based on the need of the patients and which product is best indicated for their diagnosis.

Once the LP has received a medical document and the patient has registered with them, patients are free to shop their website and have their medical cannabis delivered to their home. 

Some Benefits of Medical Cannabis 


Taxable Medical Expense[6]:  If you have a medical document for cannabis, you can claim your spending as a medical expense on your annual tax return. It is important to keep all of your receipts from LPs if you plan on claiming your cannabis on your tax returns! 

Financial Aid[3]: Many different LPs in Canada offer a variety of pricing models for patients, such as VAC (Veterans Affairs Canada) coverage, Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and compassionate pricing. These will vary depending on the LP. 

Third-Party Insurance (Private Drug Plan)[7]:  If you have a medical document for cannabis and have private insurance for your medications, your cannabis purchases may be covered by your health plan. It is important to note that each private plan and insurance provider is different. To find out if cannabis products are covered by your plan, we recommend calling your insurance provider. 

Medical cannabis in Canada can be claimed through some insurances if you have a medical document
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Medical advice

Having a healthcare professional involved with your cannabis therapy is very important. Cannabis therapy is highly individualized and the information and evidence can be difficult to navigate. Healthcare professionals can recommend optimal dosage and make recommendations based on your specific needs. Your cannabis healthcare team can also support you in making any adjustments to your therapy along the way.

As an example, cannabis can be used in women’s health and migraines.

Choosing a Cannabis Product

Because of the wide variety of dosage forms and cannabinoid concentrations available in cannabis products, choosing the right product can feel very intimidating. The advantage of working with a healthcare professional is in their understanding of medicinal properties of the different cannabinoids (for example: using CBD for anxiety, THCA for neuropathic pain etc) as well as any interactions with other medications or diagnoses. 

Bottom line 

The biggest difference between medical and recreational cannabis lies in the intent of the individual. Patients can obtain a medical document from their primary healthcare provider such as a family doctor or nurse practitioner or from a cannabis clinic. Purchasing cannabis through a medical channel has advantages when it comes to cost as well as support from a healthcare team.


Valerie Simoncic, BSc. Pharm Candidate, Faculty of Pharmacy
University of Waterloo

Edited and Reviewed By:

Rahim Dhalla, BSc. Pharm, MBA
Owner and Founder of Hybrid Pharmacy, is located in Ottawa & the first community pharmacy that specializes in cannabis

1. Health Canada (2020). Understanding the New Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations – Retrieved 21 June 2020, from
2. Government of Canada. (2020). The Cannabis Act: The Facts – Retrieved 21 June 2020, from
3. Canada, H. (2020). Cannabis for medical purposes under the Cannabis Act: information and improvements – Retrieved 21 June 2020, from
4. Canada, H. (2020). Medical document authorizing the use of cannabis for medical purposes – Retrieved 21 June 2020, from 
5. Hybrid Pharm Ottawa Forms. (2020). Retrieved 21 June 2020, from
6. Government of Canada. (2020). Details of medical expenses – Retrieved 22 June 2020, from 7. Uddin, F. (2018). Is medical cannabis covered by your workplace benefits?. Retrieved 22 June 2020, from,to%20back%20up%20your%20claim