You can develop a tolerance or resistance to the effects of marijuana with regular use.
For occasional users, cannabis can be very potent in small doses, but for regular users it takes more to reach the same effect.
That’s because after a period of regular usage you develop a tolerance and don’t respond as strongly to the plant’s cannabinoids.
In this article, we’ll look at how your body builds up a tolerance to marijuana, how to lose a tolerance, and how to avoid building one in the first place.
What is Marijuana Tolerance?
A marijuana tolerance is when someone becomes more resistant to the effects of marijuana. This means they need to consume larger doses to reach the same effect that was experienced before.
At first, a person has no tolerance to marijuana as they have never been exposed to it, but with regular use a tolerance can develop.
Dr. Bernard Le Foll, a researcher with the University of Toronto and the Centre For Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), provides a scientific perspective on what exactly is going on when someone builds a tolerance.
Dr. Le Foll says that a tolerance develops when someone is exposed to a substance over a long period of time.
“All drugs of abuse produce this phenomenon, and [it] usually leads the person to increase their consumption to get the same effect.”
There is no test designed to assess a person’s tolerance, so the only way of measuring it is by comparing their current and past reactions to the same dosage.
Determining how quickly someone might build up a tolerance is also challenging because there are many considerations involved, including frequency of use, method of consumption, and other personal factors.
What Causes Marijuana Tolerance?
Tolerance to any drug happens because of a neurological process called downregulation.
After being exposed to a substance over a long period of time, the brain reduces the number of receptors for the substance in an attempt to maintain homeostasis, or balance. Once this process occurs, you need a higher dose to reach the same effect.
Marijuana tolerance develops due to downregulation of the CB1 receptors which are activated by THC.
While downregulation is an important part of the tolerance equation, there is more to it. Dr. Le Foll says there are other cell signalling mechanisms at play, although we don’t yet fully understand the process.
Not everyone reacts the same way to cannabis, and not everyone builds a tolerance at the same rate because there are many factors involved in determining someone’s tolerance.
But the good news is that even if you do have a tolerance, it doesn’t take long to lose it.
A 2016 study that analyzed PET scans of 18-35 year old men found that after just 2 days of abstinence from cannabis, there was already increased CB1 receptor activity.
After 28 days, CB1 receptor activity was almost back to normal. This means that even chronic users only need to take a month-long break to completely lose their tolerance.
How To Lower Your Tolerance
If you’re a regular user, it can be beneficial to take a tolerance break (or “t-break”) every once in a while. A tolerance break is where you abstain from using marijuana for a period of time in order to reduce your tolerance.
Tolerance breaks usually last a few days to a week. However, for regular cannabis users, it can be easier said than done.
Quitting can bring on withdrawal symptoms after a few days — including anxiety, irritability, sleeplessness, cravings, and boredom.
To successfully abstain from consuming cannabis for an extended period of time, it’s important to use a strategy.
First, determine how long you want to take a break for, and set a date so you have a target to reach for. Next, it’s important to keep yourself busy to keep your mind off of using cannabis before you reach the end of your tolerance break.
Regularly exercising, spending time with family and friends, and indulging in a favorite hobby are some things you can do to ease any withdrawal symptoms you may experience.
How To Avoid Tolerance
Dr. Le Foll points out that it’s better to avoid building a tolerance in the first place. For recreational users who don’t have to use cannabis daily for medical reasons, a tolerance can be avoided by consuming only occasionally and in smaller amounts.
“What we see very often is that people who use very high doses of cannabis are the ones who have the most problems associated with high use. Maybe they have developed a tolerance, but they are also pushing the dose,” says Dr. Le Foll.
Increasing your dose can lead to negative side effects such as heightened anxiety and lack of motivation, he says.
Dr. Le Foll also points to the Low-Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines, a set of recommendations on cannabis use published by CAMH researchers in 2017.
According to the guide, frequent use can increase the likelihood of developing certain health problems, mental health issues, cannabis dependence, impaired driving and related injuries, poor performance in school and work, and suicidality.
Many cannabis consumers might start with a low dose and experience effects they like, but over time they find they need more to feel like they did when they first started using it. The problem is, as you push your dose higher and higher you lose the ability to mitigate the negative side effects that come with cannabis intoxication.
It’s best to use cannabis infrequently and in small amounts to avoid building a tolerance in the first place. Setting a rule to only use cannabis on weekends, or only on special occasions, is a good way to limit consumption and avoid developing a tolerance.
While marijuana can have strong effects on new users, it’s common to build a tolerance over time.
Individuals with a tolerance need to consume larger doses to reach the same effects due to downregulation of the CB1 receptors in the brain.
After just a few days of abstinence, cannabinoid receptor activity begins to return to normal, meaning it doesn’t take long for even a heavy user to lose their tolerance.
Taking a tolerance break can be beneficial for any cannabis user, but you should be prepared to handle withdrawal symptoms.
You can also avoid building up a tolerance in the first place by limiting the frequency of use and dosage.