The first time I smoked weed, I didn’t get high from it. The same thing happened on the second and third try. At the time, I remember not being disappointed because I enjoyed the flavor of the smoke. Then one year, on April 20th everything changed. I was downtown Victoria at the 420 celebrations, smoking and listening to a large drum circle nearby. I remember thinking that the drum circle sounded incredible and then it dawned on me, I was stoned.
Cannabis might affect everyone differently but in this experience, I am not alone. Many people don’t get high the first time they smoke weed. Then again, some people feel the effects of cannabis right away. Curious, I decided to look into why we do or don’t get high for the first time and was surprised at what I found; we have to sensitize our system. In fact, cannabis sensitization is the key to not only feeling an effect, it’s the reason we develop a tolerance. If you have ever wondered why you do or don’t get high, here’s a simplified explanation of what’s going on.
Start with the endocannabinoid system
We don’t know a lot about the endocannabinoid system because it was just discovered in 1990. We do know that it regulates homeostasis within the body and it does this by adjusting nerve signaling. Much like a lock and key system, our bodies produce compounds called endocannabinoids and these fit into receptor sites to produce an effect. Interestingly, there are similarly shaped compounds within the cannabis plant. We call these plant compounds phytocannabinoids and they work the same way when ingested.
In order to understand why we do or don’t get high, we have to understand how the endocannabinoid system works. Natural endocannabinoids work like other neurotransmitters, except they signal in reverse. Known as retrograde signaling, endocannabinoids bind to presynaptic sites to create or regulate nerve function. Instead of just targeting the postsynaptic neuron, they affect the neuron releasing the message. To put it plainly, the endocannabinoid system goes against the flow to target the messages before they are released. By making these chemical adjustments, the endocannabinoid system maintains balance within the body.
Why didn’t I get stoned from my first toke?
The simple answer: you didn’t have enough cannabinoid receptors. Your body had to make more before you could feel an effect. You can try to ingest cannabis but if your body isn’t ready to absorb it, you won’t feel anything.
We know that our endocannabinoid system is in charge of regulating the body. Now think about what happened the first time you smoked pot. You flooded your system with compounds shaped like natural endocannabinoids but your system was not ready for it. You didn’t have enough receptor sites ready, thus, you didn’t feel an effect. To compensate and create balance, your endocannabinoid system expressed more receptors and sensitized any that were already present. If you felt high the first time you smoked weed, you had enough cannabinoid receptors to begin with. If it took a few times, it’s because your body needed to make a lot more.
Developing a tolerance to cannabis is also a result of the endocannabinoid system. When the body has been oversaturated with THC for a long period of time, the system rebalances itself by ‘hiding’ cannabinoid receptors. With fewer receptors available, you have to consume more because you are absorbing less. This information helps lend more insight into how a tolerance break works. Taking time off from using cannabis encourages your endocannabinoid system to rebalance itself and resensitize your cannabinoid receptors.