BlogWhat is the difference between medical cannabis and recreational weed?

What is the difference between medical cannabis and recreational weed?

8 min read

Sam North

What is the difference between medical cannabis and recreational weed

With the introduction of legal medical cannabis in November 2018, here in the UK one question on the lips of many is:

"What exactly is the difference between medical cannabis and recreational weed?".

And a valid question it is!


New patients often struggle to understand the distinctions between cannabis-based medical products and ‘recreational weed’, and it's not hard to understand why. Both options come from the cannabis sativa L. genus of plants, and they both contain cannabinoids (plus other potentially beneficial therapeutic components such as flavonoids and terpenes). 

So, what's the difference?

Here's where we set the record straight.

What is cannabis?

A plant of many names, cannabis being one of them, this intriguing herbaceous species has been interwoven with human health and culture stretching back millennia.

The exact origin of the plant remains shrouded in mystery. There are species native to Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, with each region having its own unique history of cannabis use. The current prevailing theory is that cannabis originated in Central Asia, spreading to other parts of the world between 2500 BC and 1400 BC

Although medical cannabis was legalised in the UK in 2018, this isn't the first time in British history that cannabis has been used therapeutically. In fact, up until 1928, cannabis was commonly used for both industrial and medicinal purposes in the UK. Hemp was an essential crop, and was made into rope, paper, clothing, and rumour has it even Queen Victoria used medical cannabis to relieve menstrual cramps prior to its 90-year prohibition span. 

Regardless of its history, what we do know is that cannabis contains over 110 cannabinoids (plus a range of other compounds that we won't get into today), each of which may offer medical benefits.

What is medical cannabis?

Medical cannabis refers to any application of cannabis (and its derivatives) in a medical setting.

Records stretch back thousands of years that prove it has long been administered for a wide range of health concerns, but it's only in the last 50 years that the science has started to catch up. There is an ever-growing body of in-depth research and peer-reviewed studies showing that cannabis is more than just a recreational endeavour. Much more.

What conditions can medical cannabis cure?

None. Medical cannabis should never be advertised or marketed as a "cure" for anything.

It's a complementary treatment option intended to be administered as part of a broader medical plan, tailored to suit the patient's unique health needs to reduce the severity of symptoms relating to a massive range of conditions. These include, but are not limited to:

While the NHS will only prescribe medical cannabis for severe cases of a few specific conditions, specialists working with private clinics like Releaf have the authority to prescribe medical cannabis for almost any condition, as long as the patient has tried two conventional treatment options without success.

What is recreational weed?

Recreational weed is a slang saying or street term that refers to the use of cannabis (and its offshoots) for non-medical purposes. In the UK, it is illegal to use cannabis recreationally. 

Why do people use recreational weed?

The reasons for using recreational cannabis vary from person to person.

Some enjoy the euphoric high, while others appreciate the relaxing and creative properties the plant can provide. The list of creatives who have credited cannabis for enhancing their work is endless - from Shakespeare (pipes in the playwright's backyard have been found to potentially contain traces of cannabis) to Jimi Hendrix and everyone in between. 

But it's not all about the social element and creativity - for some people, cannabis is simply a way to relax and unwind after a long, stress-filled day at work.

Is recreational weed legal in the UK?

No, it remains classed as a Class B controlled drug under Part II, Schedule 2, of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and is illegal to possess, grow, or sell in the UK. The penalties for those caught with recreational cannabis can vary from a warning or a fine all the way up to lengthy prison sentences, depending on the amount of cannabis and the intended use.

Regulation sets medical cannabis apart from recreational weed

So, what is the main difference between medical cannabis and recreational weed?

In short: regulation.

Medical cannabis products must comply with stringent regulations set by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). These rules and regulations have been put in place to make sure all cannabis-based medicine options are grown, produced and prescribed to the highest possible standards.

All medical cannabis treatment options must be put through a rigorous testing process to ensure only the safest, most reliable, and effective options are available for patients. They must all come with a COA (certificate of analysis) to confirm their chemical makeup, and to show they are free of any contaminants.

It's a vastly different story with recreational weed.

Since it remains illegal, no government-backed guidelines are in place whatsoever.

There is zero oversight concerning:

  • How or where it is grown
  • What chemicals are used (if any) during the cultivation process
  • How it is handled and stored post-harvest
  • What, if any, testing has taken place

While the general consensus among the UK public is that 'street weed' is mostly safe, there is always a risk when purchasing cannabis from an unregulated source. It's impossible to know exactly what you are getting, which can lead to potentially harmful side effects.

Knowing the cannabinoid makeup is key

When you are prescribed a cannabis-based medicine, you and your prescribing specialist will know precisely what cannabinoids (and other compounds) you are putting into your system. This is important for a few key reasons:

  • There is no 'one size fits all' with cannabis, meaning different strains and cannabinoid combinations work for different people.
  • Some patients may respond better to certain cannabinoids than others
  • Knowing what you are taking can help avoid potential negative interactions with other medications or supplements
  • Your prescribing specialist will be able to monitor and adjust your treatment plan for optimal results effectively
  • Here at Releaf, our specialists take great care in making sure all of our patients have their treatment plan tailored to their specific health needs, along with a thorough understanding of the cannabinoid makeup and how it may impact their condition(s).

How do you get a medical cannabis prescription in the UK?

Typically, only patients suffering one of two types of rare epilepsy, muscle stiffness due to multiple sclerosis, or undergoing chemotherapy which is causing vomiting and nausea, have access to medical cannabis through the NHS.

All other patients will have to either:

  • Wait for the NHS to expand its list of qualifying conditions (not expected anytime soon)
  • Reach out to a private clinic like Releaf

We have a handy eligibility checker that takes less than 30 seconds to complete and can help determine if a medical cannabis prescription is suitable for you.

Final thoughts

There is no doubting that recreational weed and medical cannabis both stem from the same plant. But their intended purposes, the regulatory processes surrounding them, and their overall impact on health and well-being are vastly different.

If cannabis-based therapy interests you, the last thing you should do is turn to recreational weed - it simply does not offer the same benefits and assurances as medical-grade options.

So, if you are struggling with a chronic health condition and want to see if medical cannabis could help, reach out. Our team of patient support experts and specialist doctors are on hand to answer any questions. We understand that taking those first few steps towards better health can be daunting, but rest assured, we are here to guide and support you every step of the way.

If you would like some more in-depth reading, check out our blog and education sections.

It is important to seek medical advice before starting any new treatments. The patient advisors at Releaf are available to provide expert advice and support. Alternatively, click here to book a consultation with one of our specialist doctors.

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Sam North, a seasoned writer with over five years' experience and expertise in medicinal cannabis, brings clarity to complex concepts, focusing on education and informed use.

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