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While cannabis remains illegal under federal law, state-approved medical marijuana programs continue to sprout like weeds across the United States – and in other parts of the world, too. The key that allows you to reap the benefits of the cannabis plant is a state-specific identification card called the medical marijuana card (also known as a cannabis card or weed card).

As of July 2019, the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes has been legalized in 33 states, along with Washington, D.C. As the first state to legalize medical marijuana, California drew the initial blueprint with the 1996 passage of the Medical Use of Marijuana Initiative. Since then, states that legalize medical cannabis implement specific laws and regulations with an array of conditions. 

Though the rules for obtaining a medical marijuana card vary depending on individual state laws, understanding some of the procedures can help you decide whether getting a medical marijuana card is right for you. Here's a short introduction:  

What is a Medical Marijuana Card?

A medical marijuana card is a state-issued identification that allows patients to purchase cannabis products in a dispensary to treat medical conditions and ailments. Non-patients often can't enter a dispensary without a medical card.

In some states, the card provides proof that patients can grow limited amounts of marijuana plants at home or utilize medical cannabis delivery services. State laws also may allow patients to appoint a caregiver to purchase, administer, or grow their medical marijuana as well. 

Most medical cannabis programs are regulated and operated under each state's department of health. Aside from the patient side of the program, these state departments also handle regulations for the cultivation and sale of medical marijuana, as well as caregiver applications.   

Medical marijuana regulations vary widely from state to state. For example, patients in Colorado and California have access to a wide array of medical cannabis products, but states less weed-friendly, such as Texas, have strict programs in place. Some states allow only pharmaceutical derivatives of cannabis or require patients to exhaust all other conventional treatments before a doctor can recommend medical marijuana.  

Should You Apply? Pros and Cons of a Medical Marijuana Card

If you live in a state with a medical marijuana program but not a recreational market, there are many advantages to having a medical weed card. Marijuana sold in medical dispensaries is rigorously tested for mold, pesticides, and other impurities, unlike marijuana sold in the illicit market. A medical marijuana card can grant access to a wider selection of cannabis products that are accurately labeled with the amount of THC, cannabidiol (CBD), and other cannabinoids, and helps to identify ingredients and monitor dosages to help patients find the most effective strains and treatment.  

In a state with recreational cannabis, however, consumers should question whether it is worth paying an application fee and applying for a medical marijuana card. It helps to know what are the benefits of a medical marijuana card in a state where cannabis can be legally purchased by patients and recreational users alike. 

There are a couple of arguments that could reasonably be made against getting a medical marijuana card in a recreational state. If the application fee and wait time that typically comes with the approval process are lengthy, patients who are 21 and older can simply walk into an adult-use store and legally purchase cannabis without a medical marijuana card. Some people may also be reluctant to have their information stored in a medical marijuana registry. Despite widespread legalization, there remains a stigma surrounding the plant that might deter individuals from registering as a medical marijuana patient.   

But outside of those factors, there are still a number of ways patients still benefit from obtaining a medical marijuana card. They include:

  • Patients are able to gain treatment advice from both their physician and the dispensary budtender, allowing them to pinpoint which products can help treat their specific ailment or condition. 
  • In states where cannabis is legal for adult-use, patients with a medical marijuana card can purchase more potent products that aren't allowed on the recreational market. 
  • Medical products are often available at a lower price or reduced tax rate.
  • A medical card may allow cardholders to access medical-only delivery services.

Unlike adult-use programs that generally require customers to be 21 or older, most medical marijuana programs allow patients who are18 years of age and older to register for a medical weed card. With the approval of a parent or guardian, minors younger than 18 who also could benefit from medical marijuana may also be allowed to apply for a card. 

How to Get a Medical Marijuana Card? 

The requirements for a medical marijuana card vary state by state, but most follow a similar protocol when it comes to applying and obtaining a medical marijuana card. First, check the state's list of qualifying conditions because each state lists the medical conditions or ailments that a patient must be diagnosed with in order to qualify for a medical marijuana card. 

After confirming that your condition or ailment classifies you as a qualifying patient for a medical marijuana card, the next step is to get a letter of recommendation from a state-certified physician. In most cases, both the doctor and patient must mutually agree that medical cannabis could be an effective treatment. 

Though a medical card may not be necessary for occasional use of cannabis for minor ailments, there are still benefits to obtaining one. (Photo via Shutterstock)

The next step will be to apply for a medical marijuana card through the state agency that oversees the process, either online or via mail. States usually charge an application fee for the medical marijuana card application. The fees for medical card applications vary. Some states make exceptions for certain financial hardships or medical cases, so check for more information on the specific application process for your state. 

How Much Weed Can You Buy With a Medical Card? 

The amount of medical cannabis that you're legally able to purchase and possess as a patient depends on the state. Most states have set a limit on the amount of marijuana that can be purchased from a dispensary at one time. There are also various possession limits that permit patients to possess only a certain total amount of flower or other types of cannabis products. 

Even as a medical patient, it's important to recognize these limits and how they differ in each state. For instance, registered medical marijuana patients in Montana are allowed to possess only 1 ounce, or 28.35 grams, of cannabis flower, while Delaware allows possession of up to 6 ounces of marijuana flower, or 170 grams. 

The same approach should be taken when considering home cultivation. Certain medical marijuana programs allow patients to grow a specified amount of marijuana plants at home, but in other states, such as New York and New Jersey, do not have laws in place that permit home cultivation by registered patients or caregivers.  

Is Medical Marijuana Cheaper Than Recreational?

The price of cannabis on both the medical and recreational market will vary among states, but medical marijuana is generally more affordable than a comparable product available on the recreational market. In Colorado, for example, there is only a 2.9% sales tax on medical marijuana products, while retail marijuana has a 15% sales tax, not including additional taxes that could be tacked on by a city or county.  

Do Medical Marijuana Cards Work in Other States? 

In a number of states with medical cannabis legalization in place, reciprocity laws allow non-resident, registered patients to purchase medical marijuana with their valid medical weed card. For those that allow reciprocity--where out-of-state patients can acquire and use medical marijuana outside their home state-- an application process usually needs to be completed before using another state's medical marijuana program.

For example, if you're a registered medical marijuana patient in your home state and travel to Hawaii, you'll be able to apply to obtain a Hawaii 329 Registration card and participate in the Aloha State's medical cannabis program. However, it's not as easy as simply showing up to a dispensary in Maui with your out-of-state cannabis card, there are certain nuances to consider with each state. In Hawaii, potential customers must be registered for a medical issue that is included in Hawaii's list of qualifying conditions and also must apply at least 60 days prior to the visit. 

Feature image: Registering for a medical card can provide an opportunity to discuss your condition with a medical professional. (Photo via Shutterstock)

You can learn more about medical marijuana laws and regulations for  U.S. states and other countries on Weedmaps Learn