Blunted highs: Pharmacodynamic and behavioral models of cannabis tolerance

Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2020 Jul:36:191-205. doi: 10.1016/j.euroneuro.2020.01.006. Epub 2020 Feb 1.


Acute exposure to cannabis comes with neurocognitive impairment, leading to increased risk of human error and injury. Evidence however indicates that such acute effects are less prominent in chronic users, suggesting cannabis tolerance. Models of cannabis tolerance stress the importance of neurobiological or behavioral adaptations following repeated cannabis exposure. The pharmacodynamic model relates neuroadaptive changes in the brain to a blunted response to cannabis. Downregulation of CB1 receptors in chronic cannabis users has been associated with a normalization of dopaminergic output from the ventral tegmental area to the mesolimbic circuit, and a reduction of impairment during acute cannabis exposure. Such neuroadaptions are absent in occasional users, who show strong increments of dopamine and glutamate levels in the striatum, a loss of functional connectivity within the mesolimbic circuit and neurocognitive impairments when exposed to cannabis. Evidence for a behavioral model of cannabis tolerance that poses that users can have volitional control to overcome functional impairment during cannabis intoxication is relatively weak, and at best shows limited control over a limited number of behavioral functions. Cannabis tolerance is most likely to occur in users that consume high doses of cannabis continuously, at a high pace, for a prolonged period of time. Knowledge on frequency, dose and duration of cannabis use that is needed to achieve, maintain or lessen tolerance however is very limited, but will be of importance in the context of cannabis therapeutics and in legal settings when evaluating the impact of cannabis exposure on human function.

Keywords: Behavioural compensation; Cannabis; Impairment; Neuroadaptation; Tolerance.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / drug effects
  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Animals
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Dronabinol* / metabolism
  • Dronabinol* / pharmacology
  • Drug Tolerance* / physiology
  • Hallucinogens* / metabolism
  • Hallucinogens* / pharmacology
  • Humans
  • Marijuana Use* / metabolism
  • Marijuana Use* / psychology
  • Marijuana Use* / trends
  • Receptors, Cannabinoid / metabolism


  • Dronabinol
  • Hallucinogens
  • Receptors, Cannabinoid