Tolerance. The phenomenon dreaded by cannabis consumers everywhere. A literal buzz-kill. As with nearly any substance that we consume, whether it be alcohol, marijuana, or sugar, the human body naturally builds up a resistance to the effects of these substances.
Tolerance is why some people get wired off a single shot of espresso while coffee enthusiasts need three cups to get them out of bed in the morning. It’s why a single martini will leave some stumbling over their own feet while alcohol “enthusiasts” can practically pickle themselves on a daily basis and still remain relatively functional.
Most view tolerance as a bad thing or, at the very least, an inconvenience. But this is not always the case. After all, vaccines work based on this very same principle. By exposing our bodies to a small amount of a disease like Poliovirus, our bodies will adjust to, and learn to fight that virus, protecting us from it in the future. (I realize this is a drastic over-simplification of vaccines but hey, I’m no doctor. I just like reading Wikipedia articles).
These positive and negative views of tolerance can be applied to most substances and marijuana is no exception. In this op-ed I want to dive a bit deeper into tolerance as it pertains to cannabis and what that means for you as a consumer.
First, let’s get a brief overview of what exactly is happening in your body when developing tolerance to THC (THC, also known as Δ-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol, is the active ingredient in marijuana responsible for making you feel “high”).
The dictionary definition of tolerance (as it pertains to this subject) is as follows:
noun tol·er·ance \ˈtä-lə-rən(t)s, ˈtäl-rən(t)s\
4. a(1): the capacity of the body to endure or become less responsive to a substance…especially with repeated use or exposure.
Even though the phenomenon of tolerance is well documented, the lack of marijuana-specific research leaves the exact mechanisms of its function a bit of a mystery. What we do know is that tolerance involves both physical and psychological factors.
Physiologically, cannabinoid receptors in the brain actively “down-regulate”, meaning that after prolonged use of marijuana, these receptors decrease their sensitivity to THC, thus decreasing the perceived psychoactive effects. If you want to delve deeper into the science behind this check out this article or google “cannabinoid receptor down-regulation”. The basic ideas is that as your brain gets bombarded with cannabinoids (THC), it will naturally inhibit its own ability to receive and process those very same cannabinoids.
With regard to the psychological aspect of tolerance, we also don’t have all the facts. However, what many suspect is that users simply grow accustomed to the altered state-of-mind that results from cannabis use. This phenomenon allows frequent users to function as if they were not impaired at all in the first place. Much like how someone new to alcohol may be excited, and even distracted, by the effects of their first beer, many will find it difficult to “act normal” after their first few experiences with marijuana. However, after they grow accustomed to the resulting feelings and even begin to anticipate them, the effects become less profound and therefore less inhibiting.
So, what does this all mean for you? Here’s the short version: If you consume marijuana products more than three or four times per week, you will be subject to the effects of THC tolerance. This means that the more marijuana products you consume, the more you will have to consume in the future to achieve the same perceived effects.
I know what you’re thinking. Don’t despair! Tolerance to marijuana can significantly dissipate after as few as 2 days and return 100% after 2-3 weeks. According to this 2016 study, after 30 days of abstention, participants’ CB1 receptors (the ones that interact with THC) continued to rebound beyond the control levels. Put simply, after a month of not using marijuana, you will be right back where you started. In fact, “tolerance breaks” (abstaining from using any
marijuana products for a few days or weeks) are common practice among consumers, and are a very effective way to keep your tolerance in check.
Unfortunately, the word “tolerance” has developed some pretty bad connotations in the recent past due to its association with dangerous, addictive drugs, and you can see how that would be scary. If your body was physically craving a dangerous substance in ever-increasing amounts, with no end in sight, tolerance could very well end up ruining your health and consuming your life.
What you have to keep in mind here is that unlike heroin, cocaine, prescription drugs, or even alcohol, marijuana is not physically addictive. It’s lack of addictive properties is what makes these “tolerance breaks” possible. Imagine asking an alcoholic why they don’t just take a few days off drinking so they can have a more efficient experience with alcohol later. Spoiler: they won’t be super excited about that strategy.
The bottom line is this: As with many substances, your body will develop a natural resistance to, and tolerance of, marijuana. This is not a bad thing, and is certainly not something to be afraid of, but rather something to take into consideration if you plan to consume marijuana products with frequency. On the other hand, if you’re only consuming cannabis once in a blue moon, then tolerance is really not something you need to concern yourself with.
Next week we will explore how, in a medical context, tolerance to THC can actually be desirable!
Have any questions? Want to share how you manage your own tolerance? Let us know in the comments or shoot me a message at email@example.com!