The Art of the Tolerance Break

April 19, 2013


Note: This post is about taking a temporary break from using cannabis, not quitting permanently. Here are a few resources for people who want to quit using marijuana completely: r/leaves, Notre Dame’s self-help guide,

Empty Jar? Tolerance Break - Wikimedia CommonsI may be run out of town for bringing this up on the eve of 4/20, the international, unofficial cannabis holiday, but sometimes it’s a good idea to take a tolerance break from cannabis for a while. Whether it’s because you’re caught in the moral quandary of applying for a job while using something that’s still illegal under federal law, or because you’re no longer getting the desired effect, a break from smoking cannabis can help you get some perspective, lower your THC tolerance, and learn to appreciate marijuana all over again when you come back to it.

Frequent users of cannabis develop a tolerance[1] to its intoxicating effects (but not the decreased blood pressure and increased heart rate that comes from smoking). This happens because long-term high dosage of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol can “clog” the cannabinoid receptors in your brain, resulting in a “desensitization of cannabinoid CB1 receptors[2].” If you smoke more marijuana more often, you will feel its psychoactive and pain-relieving effects less and less. On the plus side, heavy cannabis users have been shown[3] to do better at dividing their attention and performing other cognitive tasks[4] when intoxicated than occasional users, but on the negative side it takes a lot more cannabis for a frequent user to achieve the same high as an occasional user.

For Colorado medical marijuana users, this means that their medicine will become less effective the longer and more frequently they use it, while recreational users will get less bong for their buck (pardon that awful, awful pun). Fortunately, even heavy users can return their tolerance to more manageable levels by taking a relatively short marijuana tolerance break. Essentially, heavy use desensitizes your cannabinoid receptors, so taking a break of total abstinence for about a week can return those receptors to their normal, cannabinoid-hungry selves.

Sleeping Kitten - Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a sleeping kitten. It’s relevant, I swear. – Wikimedia Commons

Though cannabis hasn’t been proven to cause physical dependence in people, total abstinence can result in a few minor withdrawal effects that can nevertheless stop your tolerance break almost before it begins, including “decreased food intake, increased stomach upset, anxiety, irritability, and sleep difficulty[5].” Sleep difficulty is one of the primary causes of relapse, and it is the driving cause behind a lot of the mood-related side effects of abstinence. Frequent cannabis users who try to go on a tolerance break often have trouble sleeping for three or four days after the break begins, and it can be very tempting to take “just one hit” to help get yourself to sleep. But giving in to the temptation to smoke defeats the entire purpose of the tolerance break, so one key to successful cannabis abstinence is figuring out how to conquer your post-cannabis insomnia.

The most difficult part of a tolerance break is breaking the psychological habit of smoking. In short, you need to remember how engaging and fun sober life can be. One way to do this is by keeping yourself busy, especially with physical activity. In general, when I take a tolerance break, I try to keep my week as full as possible with work, school, exercise, and projects to keep my mind off of cannabis and my body tired at the end of the day. It’s much easier to avoid the pitfalls of sleep deprivation if you’ve been hiking, playing sports, putting in hours at work, or crafting something all day so that when you go to bed, you’re physically and/or mentally exhausted.

Rocky Mountain National Park in September 2011 - Wikimedia CommonsIf you’re a medical user with limited physical mobility, you can still keep cannabis thoughts away by staying mentally active. Try a new hobby, learn a new skill, read all those books you’ve been meaning to catch up on but haven’t set aside time for. A Reddit user says he or she went to the kitchen to cook up an elaborate meal every time thoughts of getting stoned came up. You can also treat yourself with the money you would have used to buy cannabis; go see a movie, take a road trip, buy something nice for yourself, or finance that new hobby you just picked up.

Like trying to quit cigarettes, it also helps to avoid or restructure activities that you’d normally do stoned. For example, I love playing video games while stoned, but I find that they don’t hold my attention as long when I’m sober, and I end up wishing for a hit. When that happens, I drop the game and try to find something else to do, something that doesn’t make me think of marijuana. Of course, it’s much easier to do things without thinking of cannabis when you don’t have any cannabis to smoke, so be sure to get rid of the last of your supply before you embark on your break.

Essentially, the key to a successful tolerance break is reminding yourself that cannabis is best used as a different way to experience life, not as the reason to experience life. The first day of a cannabis tolerance break feels interminable; everything makes you want to smoke. The second day feels a little better (if you manage to get to sleep the night before), and you think about cannabis even less by the third day. By the time the first week is done, you might have a hard time remembering what it feels like to be stoned. If all else fails, think of how through the roof you will be after that first post-break hit, and you’ll have more than enough incentive to keep going.

[1] Marilyn A. Huestis, et al. “Tolerance To Effects Of High-Dose Oral Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol And Plasma Cannabinoid Concentrations In Male Daily Cannabis Smokers.” Journal Of Analytical Toxicology 37.1 (2013): 11-16. Academic Search Premier. Web. 17 Apr. 2013

[2] Billy R. Martin, et al. “The Effects Of Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol Physical Dependence On Brain Cannabinoid Receptors.” European Journal Of Pharmacology 459.2/3 (2003): 139. Academic Search Premier. Web. 17 Apr. 2013

[3] Johannes Ramaekers, et al. “Neurophysiological Functioning Of Occasional And Heavy Cannabis Users During THC Intoxication.” Psychopharmacology 220.2 (2012): 341-350. Academic Search Premier. Web. 17 Apr. 2013

[4] Gerhold Kauert, et al. “Tolerance And Cross-Tolerance To Neurocognitive Effects Of THC And Alcohol In Heavy Cannabis Users.” Psychopharmacology 214.2 (2011): 391-401. Academic Search Premier. Web. 17 Apr. 2013

[5] Rafael Maldonado, Study of cannabinoid dependence in animals, Pharmacology & Therapeutics, Volume 95, Issue 2, August 2002, Pages 153-164, ISSN 0163-7258, 10.1016/S0163-7258(02)00254-1.

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  • youdidntread

    Good article.

    Can you plz do a review of head shops in Fort Collins?

  • Zack Newington

    Hate to say it but you were right on the $ on this one. The only sad thing is I cannot have a tolerance break no matter how hard I try. That doesn’t mean I’m gonna stop trying tho. It just tough cuz I have had stomach problems and a low appetite since always. Dabbing has my tolerance so high I don’t even get a buzz anymore. And the sleeping without medicating is near impossible. I’m seeking answers tho.

    • Jaunty

      I don’t know how you’re doing now, but it’s only a couple days of awfulness. I smoked every single day, albeit not dabs, all day. The first night was impossible, almost no sleep, and I kept waking up, but trust me, after the first couple restless nights, the urge just stops. It’s pretty nice actually. My word of advice is to try and get like 4-5 days off work/school and just quit. Worked for me!

  • Bram Heijligers

    Very informative and well written, thanks!

  • Henry Jones

    Day 1 of my tolerance break. I’m super shaky and have no appetite. Forced myself to eat a few almonds this morning, and went to the gym. Now listening to a book. Probably should’ve smoked all my cannibinoids before startin’ this up. The jars are staring at me…

    • Coit Stevenson

      Get rid of the jars. It’s a very easy way to help push thru. Good luck!

  • Sudipto Pati

    Hey! I have been a regular smoker over the last 3-4 years. and in fact last year i was smoking a bit too much.. early this year I started having panic attacks on weed.. but I kept smoking.. but the panic attacks never really stopped.. I’d get really nervous and anxious and my whole body would be tightening up only half a joint in.. i’ve also been a regular alcohol drinker.. have recently decided to cut out weed and alcohol altogether.. any idea how long a break would be sufficient enough to get my panic prone mind back to normal? because seriously, life was so awesome when i had those grand trips.. never really grew dependent on it.. but i’d like to enjoy cannabis again.. hope somebody has answers.. cheers.. :)

  • idoleyez

    This article really helped understand the “t-’break” process. I’m already on day 2 of my break! Here is to another 2-4 weeks, cheers!

  • J Pershadingh

    On day 4, and this article helped me alot thanks very much :)