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Cannabis Tolerance, Part I: How Does Cannabis Tolerance Work?

As a novice cannabis user and a poor college student, one of the things I loved most about cannabis (other than the high itself, of course) was how affordable it was. For just a little bit more than I’d spend on a dinner out, I could buy an eighth ounce of Super Lemon OG that would last me up to two weeks. Two hits out of my first tiny pipe was all I needed for an evening, and when I tried to smoke a whole bowl myself, it got me not just stoned, but absolutely bricked. Back in those days, my highs were so intense that they sometimes verged on psychedelic experiences – and they came at an astonishingly low price.

A few nights ago I smoked a joint, and then another, and all I got out of it was a slight warmth in my bones, a really, really dry mouth, and the realization that it was probably time to take the tolerance break that I’d been putting off. I woke up the next day with questions. How long would my break have to be? Would the break really set my tolerance back to zero, or just reduce it? Would I have withdrawal symptoms? I did the research and found out pretty much everything there is to know about cannabis tolerance. Luckily for you, all you have to do to find that information is keep reading this article.

How Does a Cannabis Tolerance Develop?

With drugs like cocaine and heroin, developing a tolerance means that users have to take more of the drug in order to experience the same effects, which often becomes a dangerous or even deadly cycle. Cannabis tolerance works differently, which is a large part of the reason it’s one of the world’s safest drugs – if you want to get higher on cannabis, you actually have to smoke less, and there is a natural limit to how high a user can get. 

This is due to the way the CB1 receptors found in the endocannabinoid system (ECS) work. THC fits into those receptors, replacing the body’s natural endocannabinoids and getting users high. At first, all of the body’s CB1 receptors are available to bind with THC, which means that very little of that lovely psychoactive compound will go to waste. However, if you use cannabis frequently, the body will eventually adapt to the consistent supply of external cannabinoids. 

As a result, the body slows its production of endocannabinoids, expecting them to be replaced with all the cannabis-sourced cannabinoids instead. This is usually not harmful, and could even help balance the ECSs of people who previously had a deficiency of certain endocannabinoids. However, when cannabis is used frequently, it leads to a decline in function of the CB1 receptors due to a process known as downregulation.

Downregulation is a two-step process. First, the CB1 receptors become desensitized to THC, meaning that they don’t respond as strongly to the molecule. Next is internalization, where cells “suck in” their exposed CB1 receptors so that they are no longer available to bind to any present molecules, whether they are endo- or phyto- cannabinoids

The practical result of this process is twofold: first, you’ll notice that you need to smoke/vape/eat more cannabis in order to reach the level of high that you want. That’s the desensitization in action. Second, at some point beyond that, you’ll notice that no matter how much you smoke, you just can’t get as high as you used to. Your high’s “upper limit” is caused by the internalization of the CB1 receptors. With less receptors available for THC to bind to, more and more of the THC goes unused, floating around in your system until it gets metabolized without ever taking effect. 

Fortunately, none of this is permanent: the body develops a tolerance to maintain equilibrium in the endocannabinoid system, and in the absence of THC, the body will be able to rebalance itself. 

*I have to note here that unfortunately, the studies referenced in this article used only male subjects. The reasoning given was that men and women process THC a bit differently. Estrogen levels appear to influence THC sensitivity, which means that women’s’ tolerance fluctuates a bit over the course of the menstruation/ovulation cycle, whereas men’s tolerance stays mostly level.

How to Lower Your THC Tolerance

If you want to lower your tolerance, the obvious solution is a tolerance break. Decide how long of a break you want, mark an end date on your calendar, and then abstain from cannabis until you’ve reached your goal. A tolerance break is the quickest and most effective way to reduce your tolerance. However, if you are a medical patient that relies on cannabis, or if a t-break just sounds like too much of a drag, there are a few other things you can try – as long as you aren’t in a hurry. You can:

  • Try rotating strains. It can be expensive to stock up on several different strains at once, but if you can afford it, it might help keep your tolerance down (and save money in the long run). Different blends of cannabinoids result in slightly different highs, and if you haven’t gotten used to a particular strain, you may find that you feel a little bit higher after smoking it. Take advantage of this and rotate through your collection, and you may find that you don’t need to smoke as much to achieve your desired results. Plus, it’s always fun to try something new! Try to make your collection as varied as possible: have high-THC, low-CBD strains, and vice versa, as well as both indicas and sativas.
  • Smoke Less. Cannabis isn’t addictive, but if you have a habit it can still be difficult or even uncomfortable to quit all at once. So, try gradually reducing your dose. If you normally smoke all day, every day, cut down to just afternoons and evenings, and then to just evenings. Then, gradually reduce the amount you smoke until you’re back to a level you’re happy with. A two-day break results in a significant rise in CB1 availability, but it will rise slowly even over the course of a night. This is why skipping your morning wake ’n’ bake session results in a stronger high when you resume in the evening. If you just reduce the amount you smoke, you’ll slowly but surely reign in your tolerance – you just have to stick with it.

Cannabis Tolerance Isn’t All Bad

Some users may not want to reduce their tolerance. I decided to take my tolerance break because I wasn’t getting as high as I wanted to be anymore. I missed the borderline psychedelic effects I felt the first few times I smoked, and wanted to experience that again. However, that’s a personal priority, and it doesn’t apply to everyone. Some cannabis users enjoy a pleasant buzz, but feel anxious and uncomfortable during a more intense experience. For medical users, the high might not be desirable at all, and could instead be a side effect of a drug that they are using purely for pain relief.

In cases like these, a tolerance can be helpful – the reason being that a user’s tolerance develops at different rates for different effects of THC. The “functional stoner” isn’t a myth, and it’s not just a term that people use to justify their own excessive cannabis consumption – it’s something that actually applies to people who smoke a lot of weed. It doesn’t work for everyone, but many regular users develop a tolerance to THC’s side effects before anything else, and experience a reduction in (or cessation of) the dizziness, sleepiness, reduced coordination, lack of focus, and fuzzy memory. 

Cannabis users who enjoy the high may be somewhat frustrated that their maximum level of intoxication has decreased, but it’ll still be there, and it’ll still be enjoyable – and without the side effects, they are able to maintain a fairly high level of cannabis use while remaining functional. For medical users who are only interested in cannabis as a treatment, developing a tolerance can be a great way to enjoy the benefits while reducing the amount of impairment they experience.

For some, a THC tolerance is a problem; for others, it solves problems. Either way, the endocannabinoid system is able to balance and rebalance itself very quickly, which is one of the reasons cannabis is so safe – if you overdo it, your body will down-regulate to compensate, and then spring back to normal within four weeks of abstinence. 

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