5 differences between medicinal and recreational cannabis

Differences More and more countries and US states are legalising cannabis for medicinal use. Some countries and states have also legalised recreational use. But what exactly is the difference between medicinal and recreational cannabis? Read about it in this article.

5 x the difference between medicinal and recreational cannabis

Sensi Seeds has promoted the medicinal properties of cannabis for years. Knowledge about this has, for various reasons, been pushed to the background, while medicinal cannabis was already used thousands of years ago. Fortunately, this natural medicine is currently making a glorious comeback.

At the same time cannabis is the most widely used recreational drug worldwide. According to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2012, cannabis is more popular than heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, MDMA (ecstasy) and other illegal substances. A widely applicable medicine is therefore simultaneously the most popular recreational drug. This raises a question as to the exact differences between recreational and medicinal cannabis use. And how big are these differences anyway?

A complex question and answer which cannot be summarised in a few paragraphs. However, looking at these five differences brings us to an interesting conclusion.

The differences between medicinal and recreational cannabis in ancient times

The word 'cannabis' in 8 ancient languages.
The word ‘cannabis’ in 8 ancient languages, shown in the Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum Amsterdam.

Mankind has known about the multifaceted effects of cannabis and industrial hemp for thousands of years. Numerous archaeological findings and ancient texts have also been found that indicate that cannabis and hemp have been used well before Christ.

The oldest finds are from China, where, among other things, the remnants of hemp fabric and pottery decorated with hemp rope have been found. Radiometric dating determined that these cultural relics were up to 6,000 years old and belong to the Yangshao culture. Ancient Chinese medicine also refers to cannabis while other texts describe the plant as “liberator of sin” and “giver of pleasure.”

Ancient Hindu texts written around 1400 BC probably also include references to cannabis as the plant that “reveals the gods”. These texts include the words ganjika (which closely resembles the word ganja) and bhanga (resembling bhang). Both are still widely used synonyms for cannabis in much of Asia and East Africa.

The Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum in Amsterdam and Barcelona also show the wide use of cannabis and hemp through the ages. The exhibits in this museum demonstrate that medicinal, recreational, spiritual and industrial use coexisted for a long time without any problems.

Cannabis was simply something that existed, and man decided for him or herself what to do with it.

Political differences between medicinal and recreational cannabis

5 x the difference between medicinal and recreational cannabis

There are several theories about the initial reason for the ban on cannabis. It is a topic that will certainly be discussed again on our blog. All theories are in any event based on the same fait accompli: the “Marijuana Tax Act of 1937”. This law is seen as the point of no return in the disastrous global hemp and cannabis prohibition.

Now, almost 80 years later, the ban on the plant is slowly beginning to crumble. Politicians increasingly realise that it is cruel to imprison people for using a plant. The beneficial effects of cannabis are also being rediscovered and modern scientific research substantiates this effect. It is thus becoming increasingly clear why the plant has so many beneficial qualities.

All this helps to ensure that medicinal cannabis is being legalised in more and more places. Recreational use does however generally remain an offence. So while different uses of the cannabis plant coexisted peacefully for centuries, modern laws make a distinction between medicinal and recreational cannabis.

Difference between medicinal and recreational cannabis strains

Indica and sativa have different effects
Indica and sativa have different effects

Cannabis sativa and cannabis indica are two names for two types of cannabis. Scientifically (and legally), there is no difference between indica and sativa; all cannabis plants are regarded as Cannabis Sativa L. The two terms are mainly used to cluster a number of characteristics so that a particular strain can be placed in the ‘cannabis spectrum’. A multitude of different growth patterns and flavours can be distinguished in this spectrum. The effects differ as well. Indica mainly has a physical effect while the effects of sativa are mainly cerebral.

This has to do with the combination of active substances in an indica or sativa. Cannabis contains dozens of active substances which have an effect on the human body. These substances are called cannabinoids. Tetrahydracannabinoid (THC), Cannabidiol (CBD) and Cannabinol (CBN) are the most well known. THC is the principal psychoactive substance in cannabis. CBD is responsible for the calming effect experienced by many users and balances the effects of THC. CBN has a somewhat psychoactive as well as a sedative effect.

Indicas often contain more CBD and are therefore very popular as a way to relax and stimulate sleep. Medicinally, indicas are effective in the treatment of muscle cramps as a result of, for example, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. Indicas also work well against chronic pain, arthritic and rheumatic stiffness and inflammation, insomnia, anxiety and related disorders.

Sativa strains have a higher THC content and somewhat less CBD. This makes for a more energetic ‘high’ effect, observed both mentally and physically. These medicinal strains are most effective for the treatment of nausea (resulting from chemotherapy or HIV/AIDS medications, for example), appetite problems, migraine headaches, depression, chronic pain and similar symptoms.

Sensi Seeds is a leader in cannabis cultivation. We have 30 years of experience developing hybrid cannabis strains that combine the effects of indica and sativa. This is advantageous for both patients and recreational users. Combining sativa genes with a mostly-indica strain can aid mental clarity and decrease sedative effects. The addition of indica genes to a sativa-dominant strain reduces the tendency to nervousness, which pure sativas possess naturally.

In short, the difference between medicinal and recreational cannabis strains depends entirely on the needs of the user. All cannabis can be used both medicinally and recreationally.

Differences between recreational and medicinal use

A modern, portable cannabis vaporizer
A modern, portable cannabis vaporizer

Cannabis can be administered in various ways. Smoking a joint is still most common, but burning cannabis (and tobacco) is not the healthiest method. Fortunately, since the advent of legalised medicinal cannabis more attention has been paid to the different ways in which the active substances can enter the body.

A popular alternative is vaporising cannabis. With a vaporizer cannabis is heated to approximately 190 degrees, at which temperature the active substances vaporise. Because no combustion takes place, only the active ingredients are released and no, or very few, harmful by-products, such as benzene, and tar and carbon particles. Only the active compounds enter the blood by means of inhalation. Evaporation produces a very pure effect which acts quickly.

Cannabis can also be easily used in all kinds of foods and beverages. The effects are long-lasting because the active substances are gradually released into the blood through the digestive tract. However, it is difficult to dose properly and it takes a long time for the effects to kick in. Herein lies the danger of overdose because people can easily take too much.

Would you like to read more about different ways to use cannabis? Click here and here.

All these methods are used both recreationally and medicinally. The desired effect and purpose determine the choice here as well. There is one exception: cannabis oil. This cannabis extract is used mainly for medicinal purposes.

Does the human body make a distinction between medicinal and recreational cannabis?

People function best when they are balanced
People function best when they are balanced

All mammals (and therefore also people) possess the endocannabinoid system (EC). This system works with endocannabinoids; substances that are very similar to cannabinoids in cannabis.

The system possesses a variety of targets (receptors) that react to both substances. Researchers have so far identified two types of receptors: CB1 and CB2. CB1 is especially present in the central nervous system, CB2 particularly in the immune system. Various studies have shown that the endocannabinoid system influences, among other things, metabolism and energy balance, pain and emotional memory, all kinds of neural processes, appetite and metabolism.

Cannabis therefore works in a very natural way together with the body’s own system. This makes cannabis a pleasant recreational substance, but also a medicinal plant that can alleviate or cure a variety of ailments.

The common goal of this cooperation is homeostasis. This is the ability of organisms to maintain a stable balance in the body, in spite of external agents that disrupt that balance. The process takes place in the background. People are often unaware that there is an imbalance. They are also usually not aware of the body’s reaction to restore balance. Until someone gets sick, which is when the imbalance clearly manifests itself.

It has been scientifically established that cannabinoids promote homeostasis. Cannabis is thus able to have a beneficial effect on a large number of imbalances. But even if you’re not sick, cannabis use has an effect on homeostasis as it adds to its functioning. Cannabis may therefore to some degree contribute to physical balance. And consciously or unconsciously, sick or not, people function best when they are balanced.

So, is there a difference between recreational and medicinal cannabis?

Now that we have looked at some areas where people often talk about medicinal and recreational cannabis use, we can conclude that the differences are minimal. In fact, is there even a difference?

The answer lies somewhere in between. Whether you are using cannabis to relax, to socialize, to alleviate pain or heal, everything contributes to preserving or restoring physical balance. Even in the absence of an ailment, many “recreational” users also use it to be able to sleep better or to reduce stress. To achieve or maintain balance. And surely that counts as medicinal use, too, right?

What do you think? Is there a difference between medicinal and recreational cannabis? Post your comment below.

Comment Section

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no difference all users of cannabis know it helps to have a life with more harmony
good smoke people


David Watson

S0 you use the old terms Indica and Sativa to describe WLD & NLD vs NLH & WLH varieties?
All hemp is Sativa, be they NLH or WLH, all drug varieties are Indica, be they NLD or WLD. Ask Robert Clarke or Karl Hilling, they both have it correct confirmed by DNA studies. Maybe read "Cannabis Evolution and Ethnobotany" by RCC or Karls earlier papers on the subject, shame you did not read them before you wrote this....


Tere Knight

I found the article to be accurate as to the information presented therein. Well stated yet easy to read. Thanks for informing people as to the reasons behind cannabis' growing popularity. I completely agree that it helps balance people in many ways in order to reach homeostasis.


Aubrey DeBliquy

Perhaps the most important and ironically most ignored difference between medical and recreational use of cannabis is the fact the poor are more likely to be paying the "highest" price for prohibition, while prohibition continues to perpetuate the backlog in medical and therapeutic research which has been the insidious legacy of the prohibition strategy.


David Watson

Read Cannabis Evolution and Ethnobotany by Robert Clarke, based on earlier work by Karl Hillig. Sativa's are only hemp be they WLH or NLH, all drug varieties are Indicas be they WLD or NLD. Confirmed by DNA studies. Shame you did not read this before you wrote this....



Just curious can a standardized tincture in alcohol be made to be sub-lingual for a 2 + drops to avoid overdose as mentioned in food use use like brownies or say bhang India's national drink.

If it can be standardized hence eliminating the possible unintentional abuse. You could standardize the indica for sleep, and pain relief and sativa to manage depression. The two combined could be for say fibermilagia.

Other herbs such as California poppy, hibiscus and lavender also adds another sleep aid. Perhaps treating it as an herbal tincture may be a way to get more states to agree to legalize it.


Scarlet Palmer

In reply to David Watson.
Dear David,

Thank you for your comment. We would like to explain why Sensi Seeds is using what you refer to as the ‘old terms’.

We are aware of the new classifications. However, we are also aware of the fact that the old classifications have been used for so many years that they are the most familiar terms for our customer base. In the interests of disseminating information that is both factual and accessible, many of our blog posts still use the terms ‘indica’ and ‘sativa’ when referring to Wide Leaf Drug (WLD) and Narrow Leaf Drug (NLD) varieties respectively.

Our awareness of the new classifications dates back to 2014 when we interviewed Robert Connell Clarke about the release of ‘Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany’.

During this interview he stated “I brought you, with other colleagues, the system that we presently use. And hey, it’s wrong. So now it’s time to think of something that makes more sense. We present one hypothesis here. Somebody will probably prove this wrong. I hope they do before I’m gone, because that will be a really fun debate!”

Sensi Seeds fully supports scientific advancement, and this new hypothesis. Since we are a seed bank invested in making the best kinds of cannabis seeds available to as many people as possible, and making the choice of which type is right for them as easy as possible, we have taken the decision to continue to use the terms ‘indica’ and ‘sativa’ at the present time.

Also in 2014, we published an article called ‘Cannabis in Archaeology & Palaeobotany’ in which the author points out the various mistakes that are made with the classification of cannabis specimens into their correct taxonomic position.

Most recently, we have published ‘Proto-Weed: The Hunt For The Cannabis Ancestor‘ which takes a more in-depth look at the most recent taxonomy of cannabis as well as its most ancient origins. We hope that you find this interesting, and that this answer clears up any misconception about our use of taxonomy.

Best regards,

Scarlet and Martijn


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