BY BEN THOMAS | Photo by Ahmed Zayan
A little daily dose of cannabis can make life happier in a lot of ways. It can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, boost your workout energy, and even increase the intensity and duration of sexual pleasure. But contrary to what you might’ve heard, your body can develop a chemical dependency on any form of cannabis—and can build up a tolerance over time.
Everyday cannabis use causes a variety of subtle changes throughout your body’s nervous system. At consistently high doses, those changes can dull the effects of your usual edibles, vape oils and/or flower—requiring you to consume more of these products, and shell out more of your hard-earned money, to get the benefits you’re accustomed to.
How does a cannabis tolerance build up in your body? How can you tell when you’re developing one—and what can you do about it? Here’s a quick primer, along with some practical tips.
Deep within your brain, a closely wired group of structures perform a very specialized role: serving up feel-good chemicals when you do something “right.” This famous reward pathway consists of the ventral tegmental area, pituitary gland, caudate nucleus, dorsal striatum, and a few other brain regions—all tightly connected in a circuit that rewards you with squirts of dopamine when you chow down, have sex, or imbibe a bit of cannabis.
However, research shows that the brains of heavy long-term cannabis users can become non-responsive to doses that get occasional users high as a kite. A 2019 study led by Natasha L. Mason, a neuroscience researcher at Maastricht University, found that a large dose of THC (300-μg per kg) turbo-charged casual users’ reward circuitry, particularly by activating CB1 cannabinoid receptors in the striatum—but failed to trigger this reward activity in the brains of heavy chronic users.
This finding has implications far beyond weed tolerance. Since intensive daily cannabis use dulls the brain’s reward circuitry, people who indulge heavily may get less pleasure out of other enjoyable activities, too—from eating a tasty meal, to completing a satisfying workout, to sharing a sexual experience with someone they love. In short, a heavy cannabis intake can gradually suck the joy out of all life’s simple pleasures.
Everyone’s body responds to cannabinoids in its own way—which means tolerance to cannabis develops across different timescales in different people. The timeline also depends on how often a person uses cannabis, how much of it they consume on a typical day, and how much THC and CBD their favorite products contain. Still, a few telltale signs can tip you off that you may be developing a tolerance.
If you find you’re using more and more of the same products to get the benefits you’re looking for, that’s one sign you’re becoming overly weed-tolerant. You may also find you’re only getting some of the desired effects, but not others; for example, getting the munchies but not the energy boost, or feeling calm but not creative.
In some cases, a heightened tolerance can even reverse certain effects that got you into cannabis in the first place—making you anxious, unfocused, and paranoid when you smoke up. These are all signals that cannabis has knocked your brain’s reward system out of whack.
Over time, heavy daily cannabis use can even lead to a chemical dependency—leaving you feeling tired, grouchy, and apathetic when your THC runs low. Although weed is far less addictive (and much safer) than drugs like alcohol and tobacco, cannabis dependence is still a real, widely documented, and potentially serious health problem. So if you suspect you may be developing this issue, the time to take action is now.
The good news is, resetting your THC tolerance is relatively easy. The most important thing is to set a clear intention and stick to that commitment no matter what. Once you’ve made your decision, create a completely weed-free living space, whether that means giving your cannabis to friends or tossing it in the dumpster. If this feels like throwing away money, think of it as the cost of creating a better life for yourself. Plus, you’ll actually be saving money in the long run.
Easing into the transition can help a lot. For example, if you’d rather not go “cold turkey,” try switching to CBD-only products, or ones with lower THC/CBD ratios. It’ll also help to replace your cannabis rituals with dopamine-boosting alternatives, like going for a walk in the park or snuggling up with a mug of hot tea. Whatever you decide, make sure you’re clear and explicit about your intent—maybe even writing it down and posting it in an easy-to-see spot.
Remember you're making this change because you care about yourself. Use that fact as your compass.
Your first few cannabis-free days and nights may be tough to ride out. Common symptoms of weed withdrawal include decreased appetite and energy, headaches, irritable moods, difficulty focusing, chills and hot flashes, insomnia—and, of course, cravings for cannabis. But no matter what happens, remember you’re making this change because you care about yourself; because you love yourself, and want your life to be happier and more enjoyable. Use that fact as your compass. It’ll get you through the transition, and out the other side.
After a few days, you’ll start to regain your appetite, mental clarity, and ability to appreciate and enjoy the little things in life. At that point, it’s smart to spend at least a week without any cannabis, to give your brain’s reward system time to fully reset (and to give yourself time to experience life without a weed filter). If and when you choose to bring cannabis back into your lifestyle, do so with the same clarity of intention you brought to your tolerance break—and you may find yourself rediscovering the joys of this unique plant as if for the very first time.
Ben Thomas is a journalist and novelist who's lived in 40+ countries. He specializes in telling stories from the frontiers of science, history, culture, and the cosmos—and the points where all these fields intersect. Find him on Twitter at @writingben.