Coffeeshop vs Dispensary: What Is The Difference?

14 January 2021
Are you telling me that these two aren't the same thing? Guess you do learn something new everyday...
14 January 2021
7 min read
Coffeeshop vs Dispensary: What Is The Difference?

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  • 1. Coffeeshop vs dispensary
  • 2. What is a coffeeshop?
  • 2. a. A coffeeshop isn't a coffee shop
  • 3. What is a dispensary?
  • 4. Cannabis non-profit organizations
  • 5. Comparing coffeeshops, dispensaries, and nonprofit marijuana organizations
  • 6. The bottom line

When you live in a place where cannabis isn't exactly sold legally for recreational uses yet, sad, then the chances are that your eyes spark up at the hearing of places such as Amsterdam or Barcelona, two top marijuana hotspots, where people travel to every year to get the full stoner experience. 


We hear all sorts of crazy stories from friends, telling us about this or that coffeeshop and one of them fainting after hitting some of the strongest strains they ever tried. And then they mention that time when they went to that dispensary and bla, bla, bla. 

And as we sit, laughing along with their travel memories, trying to visualize the stories in our heads, the part where we create the stage of the story can get kind of confusing when we hear dispensary or coffeeshop. They might look like the same thing in our heads, I mean, aren't they?

Well, in fact, a cannabis coffeeshop and a dispensary aren't really the same thing. Allow us to explain how these two differ. 

1. Coffeeshop Vs Dispensary

When we're talking about coffeeshops and dispensaries we can't ignore certain similarities. These two involve marijuana, one, and you can buy marijuana there, two. One last similarity is that you'll most likely find tourists surrounding these two types of commerce, and that's just about it.


Both coffeeshops and dispensaries have in common that people buy marijuana there.

Both coffeeshops and dispensaries have in common that people buy marijuana there.

So, if coffeeshops and dispensaries aren't the same, how can you tell the difference between them? Let's explain what each of these is in order to understand which one you're actually looking for or actually went to.

2. What Is A Coffeeshop?

Cannabis coffeeshops originated half a century ago, in the 70s, in Holland. It was after the Dutch government came to the conclusion that a drug-free country was only a fantasy dream, and people would actually continue to consume these substances, independent of the law. 

When we think of our dear friends buying weed and getting stoned during their trip, if this trip was to the Netherlands, then you should be picturing a coffeeshop in your head, because this is the place they most likely headed to, since they abound so much in the country. 


There are party inclined coffeeshops or more of the chill type in Holland.

There are party inclined coffeeshops or more of the chill type in Holland.

Coffeeshops can vary lots on their appearance, but you'll surely be able to see some weed leaves decorating the front so that people are actually able to identify the stores. In Amsterdam, most of the coffeeshops will be located near the Red Light District. And usually, they dress green and white letterings. 

However, these coffeeshops are mainly aimed at tourists, which translates into, touristy prices, a.k.a. high rates. Nevertheless, of course you'll be able to find other hidden coffeeshops in external areas throughout the city, ones where the prices are slightly friendlier.


Ask some local people for recommendations on where to find price-friendly coffeeshops where you can purchase good quality marijuana.

Do coffeeshops sell weed only? Of course no! The big majority of coffeeshops count with, yes, a nice catalog of weed buds, as well as extracts, or edibles, and maybe even cosmetics, seeds and other products and stoner paraphernalia. Some coffeeshops are also slash café bars too!


Space is key, coffeeshop isn't the same as coffee shop!

Space is key, coffeeshop isn't the same as coffee shop!

But not everything is rose-colored in this stoner wonderland. Since the government indeed has to put some sort of order, there are some restrictions involving coffeeshops, these are:

  • The same person can only buy 5 grams of marijuana, two times in one day; 
  • No one under the age of 18 can enter the establishment;
  • And selling cigarettes or alcohol in-store is not allowed. 

As frequent stoners, we'd be safe to confirm that 10 grams a day aren't too bad anyway. 

Keep in mind that coffeeshops in Holland are located in kind of a grey area though, while it is legal to buy and consume there, bringing your own marijuana isn't allowed, as well as you can't leave the place carrying any weed on you.

A Coffeeshop isn't a Coffee Shop

Unless you're looking to get a cappuccino or an espresso, we'd suggest you pay good attention to the space between the words 'coffee' and 'shop' since it can make a huge difference. 

A coffee shop is a regular café and you won't likely find any marijuana in there. However, there are indeed some café bars in Holland where you can have a seat, order coffee, or something to eat along with some tasty buds to roll yourself a joint while you're at it. 

3. What Is A Dispensary?

Marijuana dispensaries were created by the American culture as a result of the legalization of the plant in several states around the US country. These cannabis retailers sell marijuana as well, although they have a couple of different regulations and products in comparison to Holland's coffeeshops. 

To begin with, dispensaries consist of stores that work in quite a similar way to pharmacies. Customers looking to buy weed will walk in and bump into what is known as a budtender, the guy or lady staff member who specializes in weed and will be in charge of meeting your desires, bud-wise. 

The main difference between dispensaries and coffeeshops is that consuming marijuana in the store isn't allowed in dispensaries, while it is indeed possible in coffeeshops. This is because the consumption of marijuana in public or open spaces is still illegal in some places in the United States. 


Dispensaries work more like pharmacies, with a budtender to sell you some marijuana.

Dispensaries work more like pharmacies, with a budtender to sell you some marijuana.

However, there are a couple of dispensaries in San Francisco for example, where there are designated areas where you can smoke or vaporize. It's a special area that is separated from the rest of the dispensary, which normally goes by the name of Dab Bars or Lounge zones.

Dispensaries, much like coffeeshops, offer a good variety of weed buds, varying in quality and price. You'll be able to find medical cannabis-specific dispensaries as well, or those that are focused on selling for recreational purposes too. 

While dispensaries first originated in the US, now you'll also be able to find this type of stores in Canada as well, since the country has also approved the legal use of medical and recreational marijuana. 


Unlike coffeeshops, you can't consume marijuana in dispensaries.

Unlike coffeeshops, you can't consume marijuana in dispensaries.

When it comes to regulations, in the US, dispensaries are also controlled by the local government, which, depending on the local laws, can set specific amounts of cannabis and cannabis-based products to sell. For instance, just like in coffeeshops, you need to be an adult in order to be able to purchase marijuana legally in dispensary stores.

At the same time, if you're looking to get medical marijuana, you'll need to get a doctor's prescription to back the need for the product, or be registered as a medical marijuana patient.

Depending on the store, you'll be able to purchase from weed buds, to different extracts, such as tinctures or oils, edibles, and vape cartridges in American dispensaries. Some stores even put up clones and plants for sale. When it comes to the amount of weed you can buy at a dispensary, this changes depending on the guidelines of each state. 

4. Cannabis Non-Profit Organizations

There is one last group of cannabis organizations that are non-profit and dedicate themselves to providing marijuana as well: collectives and cannabis clubs.  

Collectives and weed clubs consist of a group of people who commit to supplying marijuana by forming a sort of community. How? Well, first you need to be a member of the group, and you can do so only upon recommendation, which means you need to know someone who's already in it. 


Weed clubs are nonprofit organizations where you can buy cannabis and chill there.

Weed clubs are nonprofit organizations where you can buy cannabis and spend time chilling there, in their lounge areas.

Some clubs require members to pay a monthly fee to be a part of it and buy their weed there, as well as chill in their common lounge areas, meant exactly for this. If you're a part of a cannabis club, you will bump into sale limits anyway, most of the time this amount being up to 3 grams a day, set mainly to prevent re-selling. 

These kinds of nonprofit organizations are widely popular in Spain and Uruguay

5. Comparing Coffeeshops, Dispensaries, And Nonprofit Marijuana Organizations

So, now that we know the different characteristics of a coffeeshop, a dispensary, and nonprofit marijuana collectives, let's compare them in the following chart. 


  Coffeeshops Dispensaries Clubs and Collectives
Can you buy weed and other products there? Yes Yes Weed yes, other products, maybe
Can you consume marijuana products there? Yes Not allowed1 Yes
Is it legal? Yes Yes Depends on the country

1 - Although some dispensaries in the United States can have separate Dab Bars or Lounge zones.

However, and as we've mentioned before, these characteristics may vary slightly, depending on each country. 

6. The Bottom Line

The main difference between these stores doesn't reside on the stubbornness of this or that person but rather the stubbornness of the local authorities we'd say. 

We could probably confirm that if cannabis was openly legal all around the globe, and not looked down on by people who have little to no knowledge of the subject, then we'd be more able to move freely with our stoner lives. This including the part of getting weed too.

Wouldn't it be much better for every country to actually legalize this commerce? It's so evident that marijuana would produce amazing profits for each country, but we'll just have to be patient until these big pants people come around to change their minds.