Cannabis Tolerance: Do Marijuana Topicals Increase Tolerance For Cannabis?

cannabis topical and salve
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A tolerance for cannabis can cause some consumers and patients to take a break from marijuana use altogether. Alternatively, users and patients may instead try different methods of administration. For instance, instead of smoking weed, vaporizing it, doing dabs, or eating edibles, some users may try topical marijuana products for pain, inflammation, and other symptoms as needed. Keep reading to find out how lotions, salves, lip balms, and patches infused with marijuana are different than other weed products and what that means for cannabis tolerance.

An incentive may be defined as a familiar nudge towards a perceived or actual want, need, or action to be taken. As more US states open medical or recreational marijuana markets, patients suffering from ailments that haven’t been alleviated by medicines approved by the FDA, are finding themselves able to try an alternative. For recreational marijuana consumers, adults 21 and older have a legal way to purchase, possess, and use marijuana while ensuring further transparency between the business and consumer, as well as deterring the illegal market.

Common Reasons Cannabis Tolerance Happens

Cannabis tolerance, put simply, refers to the point at which a user or medical marijuana patient needs more cannabis to achieve the same perceived effect or scope of effects. If we think about it in simplistic neuroscience, if neuronal cells being activated by cannabis consumption in the endocannabinoid system are potentiated (activated) in the long term, it may cause the neuronal receptor site to require more excitation. Excitation can mean a neuronal cell is activated by a wave of electrochemical energy, such as is the case with neurotransmitters.

In other words,  tolerance for cannabis may occur if the person using it has done so constantly for long enough to cause changes in how the brain sends and receives information. This does not mean the changes are necessarily bad. Antidepressants known as SSRIs change brain chemistry, and they are widely accepted in western medicine and American culture.

With regard to cannabis tolerance, consumption of cannabis products directly through the lungs or gastrointestinal systems, it seems, may make tolerance for cannabis more likely with prolonged use—a result of accessibility into the blood and brain.

Each time a person eats a marijuana-infused edible, the active cannabinoids go through a metabolic change while in the liver and gastrointestinal tract. This allows many of the cannabinoids to become more available to the brain. When you smoke or vaporize marijuana, the cannabinoids attach to the lungs and are able to enter the bloodstream readily through the bronchi and other pulmonary functions.

When cannabinoids enter the bloodstream and brain, they can affect the central nervous system. Not all cannabinoids, however, are psychoactive in effect. Cannabinoids such as CBD or THC-A are among the non-psychoactive constituents of marijuana.

How Topical Marijuana Products Differ

cannabinoid chemical formulas
There is an increasing number of cannabis or cannabis-infused topical products in the market today. These include lotions, lip balms, cannabis oils, lubricants, salves, and ointments, among others. Topical cannabis products, regardless of form or cannabinoid content, are unlikely to have any pronounced psychotropic effects. This is for a number of reasons.

For starters, recall that skin is indeed an organ and is built, among other reasons, to keep substances out of the body and bloodstream. Rather than being able to enter the bloodstream like smoked, vaporized, or edible marijuana, topicals instead are effective by being absorbed into the skin and binding to neuron sites in what is known as the peripheral nervous system.

The peripheral nervous system is the nervous system operating outside of the brain and spine.

This allows topical marijuana products to be predictably helpful in inflammation, local pain, arthritis, etc., without actually entering the bloodstream. Instead, they affect neuronal cells in the peripheral nervous system and increase the amount of excitation being received at the specific endocannabinoid system transmitter sites. Being less likely to affect the central nervous system, which includes both the brain and spine, cannabis tolerance from topical marijuana products is considered less likely to develop.

What About Cannabis-infused Patches?

Cannabis patches, unlike marijuana topicals, have a built-in mechanism for entering the bloodstream. As noted by the Cannabist—owned by the Denver Post—patches used as pharmaceutical products often utilize a permeability enhancer or carrier to both pull the medication from the patch and push it into the bloodstream. This can be as simple as an essential oil or even one of the many terpenes found naturally in cannabis.

In short, patches are unique topical medications as they do in fact penetrate the bloodstream and, therefore, may increase the likelihood of stimulation of the central nervous system. As this would likely cause a full-body effect to occur rather than a localized reduction of inflammation, as one may expect from a topical cream. As a result, marijuana patches are more likely than cannabis topicals to result in cannabis tolerance in long-term users.

A Growing Industry

Research is still catching up with the market, so it’s unclear at this time whether cannabis tolerance between patch users, smoke/vaporizer users, or edible consumers increase the rate of consumption more quickly. As each of the aforementioned methods to use cannabis allows the cannabinoids to enter the bloodstream, there are a few key things to remember with regard to cannabis tolerance and these products:

First, THC- or CBD-infused marijuana patches provide continuous medication for up to 12 hours. Whereas smoking can be done every few hours, a patch is putting a consistent amount of a cannabinoid into the bloodstream every hour for half a day. Some may argue the length of time patches work can help build a tolerance for cannabis, though I’ve been unable to find research to verify this.

Second, when marijuana is eaten, as is the case with edibles, it is metabolized by the liver and, as mentioned above, made more available to the body. This is loosely termed “bioavailability.” Additionally, the THC or CBD can be broken down (or metabolized) into other cannabinoids, which may last longer in the body. 11-Hydroxy-THC is a prime example of this phenomenon. Cannabis tolerance to such metabolites may also occur.