Recreational, medicinal and synthetic cannabis: what is the difference

Please note: The information given on this page is not medical advice and should not be relied on in this way. Individuals wanting medical advice on this issue should consult a health professional.

To first understand the differences between recreational, medicinal and ‘synthetic cannabis’ it is important to understand a bit about the main chemicals in cannabis. Cannabinoids are the chemicals which give the cannabis plant its medicinal or recreational properties. Cannabinoids like THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (Cannabidiol) work by interacting with different receptors in the body to produce the various effects, such as feeling ‘high’ or alleviating nausea. THC acts on specific receptors in the brain known as cannabinoid or CB1 receptors. 1,2

THC is the cannabinoid that has a psychoactive affect (meaning it produces a ‘high’) whereas, CBD does not. CB1 receptors are found in high concentrations in the brain, and are the pathways that are responsible for the psychoactive effects of THC. The reason that CBD is non-psychoactive is due to its lack of connection or rather affinity with CB1 receptors.2

In Australia, recreational cannabis usually comes in the form of the dried leaves and flowers of the plant. It is usually smoked or eaten. Use of recreational cannabis or smoking cannabis for medical reasons is still prohibited in Australia.3

In comparison, medicinal cannabis is a product/s that is prescribed by a GP or specialist to relieve the symptoms of a medical condition, such as epilepsy. Some medicinal cannabis products are only CBD, some only THC and some a mixture of both. What a person is prescribed is dependent on the condition they have. In pharmaceutical cannabis products the active components (THC and CBD) are altered to maximise the drug’s therapeutic benefits and minimise side effects.2

A number of plant-derived and synthetic cannabinoids have been developed for medical use, including:

  • Pharmaceutical cannabis products that are approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) which are a nasal or oral spray such as Sativex®.
  • Or capsules and oral liquids such as Dronabinol®, which are currently not approved by the TGA but can be accessed through the TGA’s Special Access Scheme.3

According to the TGA website, “a variety of products are currently available through import from Canada or Europe. These include raw (botanical) cannabis, which for medicinal purposes should be vaporised but not smoked, cannabis extracts in oils, and solvent extracts such as tinctures, and oro-mucosal sprays”.3 Access to these medicinal cannabis products can only be arranged through a registered medical practitioner.

In the USA unregulated cannabis (in other words recreational cannabis) is often considered a ‘medicinal’ form of cannabis.4

In recent years a wide range of ‘synthetic cannabis’ products, claiming to have similar effects to cannabis, has become available in Australia. They are usually sold in small sachets or zip lock bags and look like dried plant matter to which one or more of synthetic cannabinoids (man made) have been added. It is usually smoked. They are marketed as having similar physical and psychological effects as recreational cannabis, but in reality, can have more unpredictable effects and are potentially more harmful than recreational cannabis. They are also often marketed as safe and legal. However, their use and sale is prohibited in most states and territories in Australia. The harm potential of a synthetic cannabis product will depend on the specific chemicals that it contains, and many products contain more than one chemical. 5,6

To recap, in Australia:

  •  Recreational cannabis is the dried flowers and leaf of the plant that is mostly smoked for it psychoactive effect.
  • Medicinal cannabis is a range of pharmaceutical products that are prescribed by a GP and may be a nasal or oral spray to treat conditions such as multiple sclerosis.
  •  ‘Synthetic cannabis’ is usually sold in small sachets and looks like dried plant matter to which one or more synthetic cannabinoids have been added.




  1. Victorian Law Reform Commission (2015). Medicinal Cannabis.
  2.  Cannabis Support and Information.  (2017). Weeding out the differences between THC vs CBD.
  3.  Australian Government Department of Health, Therapeutic Goods Administration (2017). Guidance for the use of medicinal cannabis in Australia: Patient information.
  4. Belackova V, Ritter A, Shanahan M, Chalmers J, Hughes C, Barratt M & Lancaster K. (2015). Medicinal cannabis in Australia: framing the regulatory options.
  5. Alcohol and Drug Foundation. (2018). Synthetic cannabis facts.
  6. Cannabis Information and Support. (2017). Synthetic cannabis.