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Training for Tolerance

Developing higher cannabis tolerance may be beneficial for medical users  

By Emily Earlenbaugh

Having a high tolerance to cannabis often is seen as a bad thing. The higher users’ tolerance, the more cannabis they need to consume to feel its effects. So having a high tolerance seems much less efficient and, therefore, something to avoid. In response to this problem, countless articles have suggested a solution: taking regular breaks from cannabis.

Tolerance to cannabis develops over time, and taking a tolerance break can restart the process. After a week or two of abstinence, tolerance diminishes drastically. While occasional users can find this very effective, others who use cannabis as a daily medicine actually may find these breaks counterproductive to their medicinal goals. For these patients, a tolerance to cannabis may be exactly what they need for healing.

Developing a tolerance isn’t all bad. It has its benefits, as well. As someone who uses cannabis for daily chronic pain, I have a higher tolerance to cannabis than most, but I am not looking to lower it. One of the benefits of developing a tolerance is that it lessens cannabis’ disorienting effects.

When I use cannabis, I don’t feel high; I just feel less pain. But it wasn’t always like that. There was a time when a few puffs would leave me feeling disoriented and overwhelmed. I felt better, but I couldn’t get anything done. Unfortunately, that meant I couldn’t use my medicine when I actually needed it — when I was too sick to work.

Then a friend suggested something unexpected: tolerance training. He also was a medical patient and had intentionally built up his tolerance to allow for use during everyday activities. “Try a little bit of cannabis before you start working on that paper,” he suggested. “You will feel weird for a few days, but then you will adjust.” To my surprise, he was right.

After about a week of introducing cannabis use to my daily activities, I found that I no longer had the disorienting effects. My pain was gone, but I felt normal. It was only after I developed this tolerance that my cannabis use was able to transform my life. At that point, it went from being an occasional vacation from my pain to an actual solution.

It turns out, I am not alone. While not often discussed, studies have shown that chronic cannabis users don’t seem to suffer from the same disorienting side effects seen in occasional users. When you use cannabis regularly, your body adjusts, and the experience of the medicine is very different. In fact, this is common with many medications. New substances can be disorienting at first but after a few weeks of use, patients tend to adjust.

For daily users considering tolerance breaks, it’s important to remember that cannabis is a medicine with powerful effects. Doctors generally recommend against the practice of suddenly starting and stopping medications.

Still, I have to admit I have tried tolerance breaks hoping they would bring down the amount I was using. These breaks were extremely painful, difficult and didn’t seem to help. When I went back on cannabis, I found I quickly settled back at the stable dose I had been on for years. My tolerance breaks didn’t lower the amount I needed to achieve symptom relief, but they did temporarily bring back the sense of disorientation.

If you are trying to achieve that sense of disorientation — say, as an occasional time-out from reality — then a tolerance break might be a great idea. But for medical patients trying to achieve a stable daily regimen, tolerance training might be a better path.

— Emily Earlenbaugh is a cannabis patient consultant and wellness researcher. She is the author of the online course “The Mindful Guide to Cannabis” and has a doctorate in philosophy of science from UC Davis. —